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Signals turning green in Norway

Liberal Party sets itself against main parties over oil and gas licensing but grassroots trend is growing 

Once again, oil and gas exploration in Norway’s northern waters looks set to become a hot issue as politicians gear up for a general election in September.

In recent years, the main bone of contention has been the blocks off the Lofoten, Vesteraalen and Senja islands, because of the area’s importance for fisheries and tourism. Now, a more general opposition to oil and gas production on climate grounds is starting to reach mainstream parties.

Last weekend, the Liberal Party’s annual congress narrowly rejected a proposal from its youth wing to oppose all future licence awards. Instead, it passed a more symbolic motion to cancel the upcoming 24th licensing round, which consists mainly of Barents Sea blocks in the far north.

The Liberal Party is one of two small parties that have pledged to support the current Conservative-led coalition government, securing its majority in parliament.

“Our petroleum policy is simple — to stay away from vulnerable areas, to reduce emissions from petroleum production, and to go for what will be profitable,” the Liberals’ deputy leader Ola Elvestuen told Upstream.

The vote on the 24th round “is an order to also include the climate element” in Liberals’ petroleum policy, said Elvestuen. Like the rest of the party leadership, he voted against the proposal because it was “too categorical”.

The Liberals have no power to halt the 24th round, which will go ahead as planned, Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Petroleum & Energy Minister Terje Soviknes both confirmed to Upstream.

However, both ministers said the Liberals’ stricter stance on oil and gas exploration in the north could hamper further co-operation after the election.

“We can find good solutions with the Liberals on a lot of issues, but on this issue we disagree deeply,” Solberg told Upstream. “The Conservatives will not go along with that kind of policy, and it would also go against a broad majority in Parliament.”

Soviknes, representing the Progress Party, agreed. “This was a very unwise decision which endangers the supplier industry, jobs and the country’s future welfare,” he told Upstream. 

“We could not possibly go along with a policy of saying no to Barents Sea activity on principle, like the Liberals are doing now.”

The Liberals’ new stance means the party would get a tougher time in possible talks for a new government platform after the September election, observers noted. That may not happen in any case - according to recent polls, Norway could be due for a return of a Labour-led coalition after the election.

Regardless of the election outcome, it is worth noting that it was the youth wing of the Liberals that pushed through the anti-licensing decision, against the votes of the middle-aged party leadership.

The youth arm of Labour, Norway’s largest party, is also slowly pulling its parent party in a more petroleum-sceptic direction. And two years ago, young, environmentally conscious voters gave the new Green Party 4.2% of nationwide votes in local elections, and almost twice that in the capital Oslo.

The Green Party wants to shut down Norwegian oil and gas activity over a 20-year period. That is not going to happen any time soon, but Norway’s leading politicians must be prepared to face increasingly stronger demands for a more climate-friendly petroleum policy in the years ahead. The Liberals’ vote last weekend is only the beginning.