Solberg’s Coalition Push Seen Sacrificing Norway’s Lofoten Oil

Conservative leader Erna Solberg could sacrifice opening oil exploration off Norway’s protected Lofoten islands to lure Liberals and Christian Democrats as she seeks a majority for her agenda over the next four years, political scientists including Frank Aarebrot said.

While a minority government of the Conservatives and the anti-immigration Progress Party is the most probable outcome after this week’s election, the more equal balance between the four parties than polls had forecast could lead to a four-party majority government, said Aarebrot, a professor at the University of Bergen.

“If a majority government is formed, opening Lofoten and Vesteraalen will be sacrificed,” he said by phone, adding he sees a 45 percent chance for that outcome. “The only way you can prevent oil activity in Lofoten and Vesteraalen is if you get a four-party center-right government, where the Conservatives and Progress give up” the issue, he said.

The four parties won a total of 96 seats out of the 169 in parliament in the Sept. 9 election, ousting Jens Stoltenberg’s Labor-led coalition. The Conservatives got 48 seats and together with the Progress Party favor an impact study of oil and gas exploration and production in the environmentally sensitive waters off Lofoten, Vesteraalen and Senja in northern Norway. An impact study is the formal first step needed to open up an area for exploration.

‘Highest Priority’

The Liberals and the Christian Democrats, who won nine and 10 seats, respectively, are opposed to opening the area, which is home to the world’s biggest cold-water coral reef and mainland Europe’s biggest seabird colony, according to the WWF. It’s the breeding area for 70 percent of all fish caught in the Norwegian and Barents seas, and home to sperm whales and seals.

Oil companies such as state-controlled Statoil ASA, which operates more than 70 percent of all production in Norway, have said it is urgent to open the area, which could hold 3.4 billion barrels of oil equivalent, to make up for falling production from the North Sea. The outgoing government was also split on the issue, with the bigger Labor Party in favor of opening the area and the smaller partners opposed.

As coalition talks start next week, keeping a drilling ban is the “highest priority,” said Ola Elvestuen, the Liberals’ deputy leader, said by phone on Sept. 11, stopping short of ruling out government membership should an impact study go ahead.

While Liberals and Christian Democrats will probably “stand firm” on their demands on the issue, it’s unclear whether they can prevent an opening, said Knut Heidar, a political science professor of the University of Oslo. That will depend on whether they join government or not, he said.

Real Willingness

It will be much easier for the two parties to block an impact study if they can threaten to break the government from within, which Labor’s junior partner, the Socialist Left, did in 2011, Aarebrot said. The Conservatives and Progress Party could also seek support from Labor lawmakers for a study, he said.

“There seems to be a real willingness to form a majority government,” Aarebrot said ahead of next week’s talks.

A shift in focus to the more-northern Barents Sea could also have cooled some of the push to open Lofoten, he said.

Conservative and Progress lawmakers said having a majority government could be worth sacrificing Lofoten exploration, Aftenposten reported today, citing unidentified members of parliament.

For now, the Conservatives maintained their support for drilling ahead of coalition talks.

“Everybody knows that the Conservative Party is strongly pro-opening of the Lofoten and Vesteraalen area,” Bent Hoeie, a deputy party leader, said today in an interview at Gardermoen, outside Oslo. “This is a difficult question on both sides” of Norwegian politics.

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