Dispute and controversy

Government spokesmen have tried to reassure voters that 'the conditions relating to environmental concerns and fishery interests . . . have been strengthened in some areas . . . and time limitations have been introduced on seismic surveys' conducted by energy companies searching for oil and gas.5 At the same time, the 'sustainable use of resources' and the setting of 'strict environmental standards' form a central part of the 'High North' policy. But these efforts to discover and then exploit new reserves to replenish the old are certain to stoke bitter conflict among Norway's own politicians and pressure groups that are mindful of their hefty environmental price.

This is partly because many of the areas that energy companies are watching with so much interest are traditional fishing grounds, particularly for cod and herring, and any attempt to explore or drill for oil there would cause serious disruption for fishermen. This is why conservative and right-wing political parties have in recent years opposed any move to surrender more areas of Arctic sea to energy companies. In recent years these parties have taken the side of the fishing industry while the centre-left has been more sympathetic to the oil lobby, and this conflict of interest was an important feature of the campaigns fought in the run-up to the elections of September 2009.

Environmentalists share these concerns and are watching these developments with horror. The seismic scanning of the waters around Lofoten in the summer of 2007 was 'very worrying considering that this is the spawning season for the fish' as well as a bad time for whales and sea birds, argued the leader of one pressure group, who refuses to rule out acts of civil disobedience to stop it from going ahead.6 Others see it as a threat to the region's natural beauty, particularly when Norway has experienced its fair share of disasters. In December 2007, it suffered its second-worst spill when around 25,000 barrels of oil seeped into water as they were being loaded onto a tanker at an offshore field, Statfjord. Matters would have been much worse if the oil had made its way onto the shores, 100 miles away, as a result of strong winds and prevailing currents. But for environmental campaigners it was quite bad enough. 'This should be the final nail in the coffin of exploration in the north', as a spokesman for the pressure group Bellona told one newspaper. An official at the WWF for Nature in Norway also said exploration areas should be pushed further away from coastlines to prevent similar accidents affecting shores.7

While Norway is likely to experience a great deal of antagonism at home, the scope for international dispute, between Oslo and neighbouring governments, is more limited. Mindful of how much oil and gas its surrounding waters could be harbouring, Oslo has certainly pushed its legal case hard to win possession of several disputed areas. Having signed up to the Convention on the Law of the Sea in July 1996, it formally submitted its case to the United Nations 10 years later, just days before its deadline expired. Claiming that its outer continental shelf extends well beyond its 200-mile economic zone, Norway sought to stake its territorial claim by as much as 96,500 square miles. This claim included an area of the Norwegian Sea, known alternatively as the 'Herring Loophole' or the 'Banana Hole' that lies beyond Iceland's economic zone; the Western Nansen Basin, which lies north of the Svalbard archipelago; and the Loophole, the area of high seas that lies in between the economic zones of both Russia and Norway. These claims were accepted in April 2009, when the UN Commission issued its final recommendations on Norway's case. Its decision 'confirms that Norway has substantial rights and responsibilities in maritime areas of some 235,000 square kilometres', a triumphant Jonas Gahr Stoere pronounced.8

This is certainly enough to create considerable friction with its neighbours, most obviously the Russians. In addition to the Loophole, Moscow and Oslo are still at loggerheads over the status of the 'Grey Zone', adjacent to the coast, and the waters around Svalbard, where geologists feel reasonably sure significant quantities of oil and natural gas are to be found. The possibility of tension over these areas has already raised eyebrows in Oslo. A Norwegian government White Paper on Arctic policy, published in 2005, warned that these areas had the 'potential for a conflict of interest', while during the reading of the White Paper in the Parliament, the Stortinget, members of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs pointed out that:

one of Norway's main challenges is that we presently have large areas in the north where Norwegian management or sovereignty is disputed, and where many states have no clear position to the Norwegian view.9

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