Norway barred oil and gas drilling off picturesque Arctic islands on Monday in a victory for fisheries and the environment but said it would let oil firms explore further north in the Barents Sea.
After a dispute mirroring rows about U.S. President Bush’s plan to open tracts of Alaska to oil and gas firms, Oil and Energy Minister Einar Steensnaes said that oil spills could be too damaging off the jagged Lofoten islands.
“The special character of this area as a spawning ground for important fish stocks and as a fishing ground has been important for this decision,” he said. The ban will be reviewed in 2006.
The center-right government also said it will permit companies to resume exploration for oil and gas further north in the Barents Sea after a two-year moratorium.
“Oil spill protection must be strengthened compared to today’s level,” Steensnaes said of the conditions for new wells. Reopening the Barents is assured of support in parliament.
Oil companies, led by Norway’s Statoil and Norsk Hydro, say that big finds are drying up further south and have sought new areas in the Arctic, including near Lofoten.
Norsk Hydro said it was disappointed by the exclusion of the areas off Lofoten. “We have run oil activity in Norway for 30 years. We have drilled 1,000 wells off the coast ... without damage,” said Hydro’s spokeswoman Hege Norheim.
A loose coalition ranging from environmentalists to bishops and authors had argued against oil and gas drilling off Lofoten, a tourist draw where snow-capped mountains rise sharply from the sea. They said oil would still be there in 50 or 500 years when cleaner technologies would be available.
Statoil welcomed the reopening of the Barents where it, Norsk Hydro and Italy’s Agip are poised to drill three new wells in 2004-05. “We are looking forward to starting our exploration activity there,” spokesman Kristofer Hetland said.
Some environmentalists hailed the closure off Lofoten, just inside the Arctic Circle, call it a is a “natural paradise” with the world’s biggest stocks of cod and herring and the biggest cold-water coral reef. Lofoten is also home to puffin and cormorant colonies.
“We hope that this will set a precedent for other areas in the Arctic,” said Samantha Smith, head of the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic program.
But Frederic Hauge, head of the environmental group Bellona, said Oslo should have announced a permanent ban off Lofoten. “This is a pitiful day ... and they are opening some of the most controversial areas in the Barents Sea,” he said.
Smith also said the Goliat field in the Barents Sea was near the coast and to major puffin and guillemot colonies.
Environmentalists say the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska shows that oil is more damaging to the Arctic environment because it takes longer to break down in a cold climate.
In other countries, environmentalists oppose oil and gas drilling in northern areas from Alaska to the Russian far east.
Norway is the world’s third biggest crude oil exporter behind Saudi Arabia and Russia, pumping about three million barrels a day. The only major petroleum field in the Barents Sea is Statoil’s Snoehvit gas field, due to start producing in 2006.
In Norway, the row pits the nation’s biggest business -- oil and gas -- against fisheries, the second largest, and a powerful environmental lobby favoring a break with fossil fuels widely blamed for global warming.
Oil companies say they need to explore towards the North Pole because finds further south that have made Norway one of the world’s richest nations are drying up.
Opponents of Arctic drilling, including bishops of Norway’s Lutheran state church, say using existing technology brings unacceptable risks of spills. One local mayor retorted that they should stick to religion.
Jostein Gaarder, author of the 1990s bestseller “Sophie’s World” which is a teenagers’ guide to philosophy, denounced oil plans by adapting ideas from German philosopher Immanuel Kant that every act should lay down a moral principle.
“It’s doubtful whether Kant would have accepted that it was ethical for us to use up our non-renewable energy resources within two generations,” Gaarder wrote. “If I were born in 50 or 500 years, what would I have wanted?”
Drill to help Russia?
The country’s biggest-selling newspaper, Verdens Gang, said Norway should open northern areas partly to ensure that Norwegian firms will gain expertise to aid neighboring Russia in coming decades.
Among projects in Russia, Gazprom, the world’s biggest gas company, wants to develop the remote, giant Shtokman field in the Barents Sea, one of the world’s biggest fields.
Grigory Pasko, a campaigning journalist who was jailed on espionage charges after uncovering Russian navy pollution of the oceans, noted there was little public controversy about Arctic oil and gas which would bring big earnings to Russia.
“Russians do not particularly want to make much noise about this,” he said. “The TV and press are dependent on the authorities, except for one or two small exceptions, and they are encouraged not to write about ecological issues.”