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Last Updated: Monday, 15 December, 2003, 16:55 GMT
Norway allows Barents oil search

By Jorn Madslien
BBC News Online business reporter

Image: WWF-Norway
Below the surface lies unknown riches.
Norway has decided to open the as yet unexplored Barents Sea near the Russian border for oil and gas exploration.

Environmentalists have criticised the move, worried that an oil spill could have a major impact on the fragile Arctic environment.

Norway's fishing industry is also keen to keep the oil firms away from the waters they have fished for centuries.

A ban on exploration in the waters off the all-important Lofoten islands fisheries community will remain.

Futile protests

Norway wants three exploration wells to be drilled during the next two years.

And, perhaps surprisingly, the proposal comes along with tough calls for greater protection of the environment.

Image: WWF-Norway
Environmentalists fear for the fragile Arctic environment.
"Oil spill protection must be strengthened compared to today's level," Oil and Energy Minister Einar Steensnaes said.

Norway considers itself a relatively green operator in the oil industry, and a widely held view - though not one the government is prepared to air in public - is that its neighbour Russia is less strict with regards to environmental standards.

Opposition to Norway's exploration plans may therefore be deemed futile since Russian exploration in the same region is expected to go ahead regardless.

Thus proponents of Norway's move insist that the smaller country must be involved in order to make sure environmentally friendly technology and protective guidelines are introduced from the start on both sides of the border.

Global politics

The environmental concerns in their region reach beyond worries about exploration activity in the region.

The Barents Sea could soon become a transit route for supertankers shipping crude oil from Murmansk, the only warm water port on the west coast of Russia, to the US.

Russian oil industry officials have proposed an oil pipeline from Siberia to Murmansk, from where it would take just 9 days for a ship to reach Houston, compared with 32 days from the Middle East.

Russia is keen to raise its share of the US market to 10%, almost on par with Mexico's.

The Americans like the idea too, since this would reduce their dependence on oil shipments from members of the Opec oil producers' cartel.

Gold rush

A search for oil in the Barents Sea is almost guaranteed to be fruitful, a Norwegian ambassador told BBC News Online.

Image: WWF-Norway
The Lofoten islands have fended off the oil industry, for now.
He insisted he knew this, even though exploration activities have been outlawed for years, because some drilling was carried out by the Russians before the ban was introduced.

This knowledge has created other complications, the diplomat said.

Russia and Norway do not agree on exactly where the border between the two countries lie, due in part to what he, perhaps subjectively, described as deliberate mapping errors made by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Fisheries disputes that were sorted out during the Cold War were far from amicable; this could be worse.

When it comes to lucrative oil wells, shifting the border a few hundred metres either way could be very lucrative for one nation or another, explained the diplomat.

Local desires

Norway's exploration plans have brought cheer to the sparsely populated region of Finnmark.

Already, Statoil's liquefied natural gas (LNG) field Snohvit has brought thousands of jobs to the region.

But conflict could also be brewing.

The native Sami people on both the Russian and Norwegian side have long laid claim to land and water rights on the mainland.

Some observers expect them to lay claim to a share of the riches of the seas as well.

Norway urged to reject oil plans
24 Nov 03  |  Science/Nature
Norwegian whalers' determined position
14 Oct 02  |  Science/Nature


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