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Norway’s Identity Crisis: The Battle for Lofoten

By Hannah Buehler

Looking out from the crest of one of the thousands of craggy mountains that make up the Lofoten Archipelago, an impossibly blue sea bathes white beaches that seem out of place this far north. Fishing boats break the glassy water in mossy fjords as they journey out from the red- and orange-painted fishing villages to the open ocean. In the distance, splashes from diving seabirds dissipate into the cool Arctic air. The waters of Lofoten are filled with treasures that rival the terrestrial beauty of the islands: the world’s largest cold-water reef, a bountiful stock of Arctic cod, rich populations of seals and whales, and approximately $65 billion in oil reserves.

When I visited the Lofoten archipelago this August, blissfully unaware of the controversy brewing under the ground, the rest of the world seemed far away. While flocks of grazing sheep made ripples in the grass and waterfalls spilled down towering mountains, all I heard for hours on end was the wind and calls of seagulls. Despite the peaceful landscape of these islands, Lofoten has been anything but quiet in the past year. It has become a battleground of the Norwegian environmental movement.

Opening up the Lofoten archipelago to oil drilling became one of the most contentious issues of the Norwegian parliamentary elections last month. To avoid the negative environmental impact of drilling on the local fishing industry, a temporary ban was placed on oil extraction in the islands in 2001. Ahead of the September elections, both major parties, Labour and the Conservatives, were in favor of lifting the ban on oil exploration in the islands. On Sept. 11, Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party won a second term as prime minister.

While Solberg has not made any official plans to open Lofoten to oil drilling, she has promoted the economic and employment benefits of opening the archipelago. In a Financial Times interview in July, Solberg reaffirmed her belief that oil drilling would bring “another type of job, more highly educated” to Lofoten. The Norwegian government has estimated drilling could bring 400 to 1,100 jobs to the area. Solberg has also suggested that sub-sea equipment could be used to preserve the picturesque coastline, and that the fishing economy could thrive alongside the oil industry. 

Norwegians are deeply divided on the issue. According to a recent poll, 44 percent of respondents stated that they were in favor of restricting the Norwegian oil industry in order to reduce emissions, and 42 percent were opposed. This polarization highlights an uncomfortable hypocrisy for Norway. The country has famously advocated for climate responsibility on the global stage and passed radical initiatives to reduce domestic emissions. In 2016, Norway pledged to become completely carbon neutral by 2030, moving the deadline set by the Paris agreement up two decades. That same year, parliament voted to ban gas- and diesel-powered cars by 2025, and Norway became the first nation to outlaw deforestation. It also funds climate initiatives in other countries. In 2015, Norway donated $1 billion to Brazil to promote anti-deforestation initiatives in the Amazon. The country has launched similar projects in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

While Oslo takes its place at the forefront of environmental protection, Norway’s economy and job market has flourished for decades as Western Europe’s biggest petroleum producer. The oil and gas industry constitutes 22 percent of the nation's GDP and 67 percent of all exports. Norway also enjoys a sovereign wealth fund of almost $1 trillion, thanks to income from offshore oil and gas operations. 

Now, Norway must decide whether investing more in the oil and gas industry is a wise choice. Last year, government revenue from oil plunged 40 percent compared to 2014. Oil prices remain low and Norway’s principal export market, Europe, is weaning itself off of fossil fuels. For a country so dedicated to its environmental goals, Norway must also decide whether oil and gas investment makes climate sense. Despite lofty goals of being carbon neutral by 2030, Norway is one of the only European countries where greenhouse gas emission levels are higher now than they were in 1990. Climate scientists state that in order to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, much of the remaining oil in the world must be left in the ground. A 2015 University College London study concluded that no oil and gas resources could be exploited in the Arctic if the target is to be reached, yet Norway maintains many drilling projects in the region and is proposing the excavation of more. 

Locals and environmental groups are fighting back to defend Lofoten and the global climate. Protests have erupted in both the islands and in Oslo. Named after the controversy, The Lofoten Declaration, which calls for the end of new oil exploration and the managed decline of current production, has been signed by 220 organizations from 55 countries. Greenpeace Nordic and its co-plaintiff Natur og Ungdom (Nature and Youth) are taking the Norwegian government to court in November on a claim that opening new oil excavations in the Arctic breaches the Norwegian constitutional right to a healthy and safe environment and contravenes the Paris Agreements.  

Some suspect that the oil industry is using the prospect of drilling in Lofoten to draw environmental groups’ focus away from drilling operations in the Barents Sea, another ecologically sensitive area off the northern coast of Norway. While 1.3 billion barrels of oil may lie under Lofoten, the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate estimates that 18 billion barrels, about two-thirds of Norway’s undiscovered petroleum, could lie in the vast Barents Sea.

But there’s a reason that the debate over oil drilling in Lofoten has generated so much attention and passion not only from locals but from Norwegians all over the country. Lofoten is a source of national pride, often hailed as the most beautiful attraction in a country brimming with natural beauty. 

Almost a million tourists a year arrive to experience the pristine landscape. Fishing traditions that have been practiced for centuries continue to thrive in Lofoten. The region’s economy has long centered around Arctic cod fishing, and the day’s catch hangs from drying racks along shorelines and roadways. While Solberg believes these industries can flourish alongside oil, environmentalists dispute this claim, and mass tourism is already taking its toll on the islands. 

Some locals feel that that recent upsurge tourism is already affecting the environment and the archipelago’s sparse infrastructure. Lofoten is remote. The islands are connected by a single main road, the E10, which often is congested with rental cars, camping vans, and delivery trucks. Additionally, according to the Norwegian concept of allemannsrett, meaning every man’s right to roam, visitors are free to walk and camp in the countryside, forests, or mountains. In Lofoten many visitors camp even where there’s no public toilet, creating problems for headers whose sheep roam the islands. These issues will only be exacerbated as Lofoten continues to attract tourists from all over the world. 

Standing in solitude at the peak of a mountain ridge, gazing out on the shimmering waters that frame these jagged islands, one is compelled to reflect. Like the islands themselves, the controversy in the Lofoten archipelago causes us to contemplate what we truly value as a society. If we don’t protect our most sacred and beautiful places, places that define our national identities and inspire awe, then what will we protect?

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Hannah Buehler is a research assistant at World Policy Institute.

[Photos courtesy of Hannah Buehler and June Grønseth]

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