THE BAT­TLE FOR NORWAY’S SOUL

For a country en­riched by oil but prid­ing it­self on cli­mate action, the USD60 bil­lion worth of pe­tro­leum be­neath Norway’s Lo­foten ar­chi­pel­ago – fea­tur­ing the world’s largest cold-water coral reef – poses an ex­is­ten­tial dilemma: to drill or not to drill?

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As his fish­ing boat bobs its way out of the port, Leif Karlsen points to the house where he was born 63 years ago. He lets out nearly two kilo­me­tres’ worth of line while we watch the ma­jes­tic, jagged peaks that dom­i­nate this part of the Arc­tic Cir­cle fram­ing the sea. Then he ges­tures to­wards an­other dwelling: “My grand­mother lives there; she is 103.”

Karlsen has fished the wa­ters off Norway’s Lo­foten Is­lands since he was 15. The spec­tac­u­lar ar­chi­pel­ago in the north-west – widely prized as the crown jewel in a country with abun­dant nat­u­ral trea­sure – is known for a boun­teous pop­u­la­tion of Arc­tic cod, which has formed the ba­sis of its econ­omy for al­most a mil­len­nium. It is a bright day and out­side the Arc­tic cod season, so Karlsen is here to catch hal­ibut. The haul is ex­pected to be slight – “I will be sat­is­fied with one,” he says in his strong, lilt­ing Lo­foten di­alect over the chug of the mo­tor.

A lit­tle out­side the port of Laukvik, about 950 miles from Oslo, Karlsen throws out the buoy to mark

where his line be­gins. “It’s true that fish­ing goes up and down over time,” he says, ges­tur­ing with his dex­ter­ous fin­gers. “Big business has eaten up a large part of coastal Norway,” he con­tin­ues, lament­ing how com­pa­nies are squeez­ing out small fish­er­men by buy­ing up quo­tas and us­ing larger ves­sels. Then the mood dark­ens still fur­ther. For Lo­foten is not just home to a huge cod stock and the world’s largest cold-water coral reef, it also has an­other re­source lurk­ing un­der the sur­face of the water. About 1.3 bil­lion bar­rels of oil equiv­a­lent are thought to ex­ist in the ar­chi­pel­ago as well as the neigh­bour­ing is­land groups of Vesteralen and Senja. At to­day’s prices, this is worth about USD60 bil­lion.

The is­sue of whether to open up the ar­chi­pel­ago to po­ten­tial ex­plo­ration was one of the most con­tro­ver­sial de­bates ahead of the re­cent na­tional elec­tions. All three of Norway’s largest par­ties – likely to cap­ture two-thirds of the votes – were in favour of a so-called im­pact study, the usual first step to­wards drilling. “To say it sim­ply,” says Karlsen, “it is to­tally id­i­otic and com­pletely sense­less to start up with oil here in Lo­foten.” He cites a priest and poet from the 17th cen­tury, Pet­ter Dass: “With­out the Arc­tic cod we will suf­fer here – it is like gold to us.”

The fight over Lo­foten, however, is not just a local mat­ter. It is nothing less than a bat­tle for the soul of Norway and what kind of country it wants to be. For decades, the na­tion’s econ­omy and jobs mar­ket have been boosted by oil and gas. It has used the rev­enues from pe­tro­leum to cre­ate the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, which owns on av­er­age 1.3 per cent of ev­ery sin­gle listed com­pany on earth.

This new de­bate il­lus­trates an un­com­fort­able truth. While it preaches en­vi­ron­men­tal re­spon­si­bil­ity on a global stage, Norway is also west­ern Europe’s big­gest pe­tro­leum pro­ducer. En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and some for­eign business peo­ple ac­cuse it of hypocrisy for back­ing the Paris agree­ment on cli­mate change while drilling in the Arc­tic. The dual na­ture of Norway’s po­si­tion was demon­strated when

the country’s par­lia­ment or­dered its sovereign wealth fund to di­vest it­self from coal com­pa­nies while a sim­i­lar move over oil and gas groups was also considered.

There are many who ar­gue that re­sources like those in Lo­foten need to be left un­touched. Cli­mate sci­en­tists be­lieve that, in or­der to limit global warm­ing to 2°C, much of the re­main­ing oil in the world must be left in the ground. A 2015 Univer­sity Col­lege London study said no oil and gas re­sources could be ex­ploited in the Arc­tic if the tar­get is to be reached. Many be­lieve that Norway could do more with other in­dus­tries such as fish­ing and tourism. “Lo­foten is the Ama­zon and Great Bar­rier Reef of Norway,” says Nina Jensen, head of the en­vi­ron­men­tal group WWF in Norway. “It is the most unique area. If you can’t leave oil and gas re­sources in an area like that, then nothing is sa­cred. That is why this bat­tle is so important.”

Two hours down the only main road in Lo­foten – but just 32 miles as the crow flies – lies the vil­lage of Un­stad. The sun has gone and a brisk wind from the At­lantic is bring­ing in heavy rain, which lashes down on a dozen or so black dots out in the sea. They are surfers wait­ing to catch a wave in one of the north­ern­most surf­ing spots on earth. In 1963, Nor­we­gian sailors saw surfers in Syd­ney and they de­cided to try it out in Lo­foten on their re­turn. They fashioned their crude surf­boards by im­i­tat­ing what they saw on the cover of a Beach Boys al­bum. Mar­ion Frantzen, the jovial daugh­ter of one of those sailors, now runs Un­stad Arc­tic Surf with her hus­band, of­fer­ing not just board rental and a surf school but also cabins and a café. The business has rapidly ex­panded, with surfers com­ing to ride waves un­der the mid­night sun in sum­mer and the North­ern Lights in win­ter. “It’s only quiet in Novem­ber, De­cem­ber and May,” she says.

Like Karlsen – and in­deed most Lo­foten lo­cals – she is res­o­lutely against the idea of oil drilling. “I’m so against oil. We are hys­ter­i­cal about it. They hype it up but there is

“The sun has gone and a brisk wind from the At­lantic is bring­ing in heavy rain, which lashes down on a dozen or so black dots out in the sea. They are surfers wait­ing to catch a wave in one of the north­ern­most surf­ing spots on earth.”

nothing for us. Most tourists come to Lo­foten for the na­ture, the pu­rity. Are we going to risk that? For what? It’s about Norway’s iden­tity, 100 per cent.” Sit­ting in the café as the rain splat­ters against the win­dows, Frantzen raises the is­sue of jobs. The Nor­we­gian gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates that oil could bring be­tween 400 and 1,100 jobs an­nu­ally to the local area. This statis­tic is met with con­ster­na­tion by ev­ery­one I talk to. “A few hun­dred jobs,” says Frantzen. “What are 400 jobs? I em­ploy 18 here, and it’s a small business.” Karlsen says: “If they leave us in peace, we can do a lot more (than 400).”

For any­one think­ing that the easy al­ter­na­tive to oil is sim­ply to go for tourism and more fish­ing, Frantzen and oth­ers, however, are quick to de­flate ex­pec­ta­tions. Al­ready some lo­cals be­lieve that too many tourists are com­ing. The Lo­foten tourist centre es­ti­mates that as many as a mil­lion tourists a year visit the ar­chi­pel­ago, home to just 23,000 res­i­dents. “The string has been pulled to such an ex­tent that when it breaks it will be a huge prob­lem. The peo­ple who work in the tourism in­dus­try, we are not sat­is­fied. If you go into the local town, you can queue for an hour just to buy a pint of milk,” Frantzen says, with per­haps a hint of ex­ag­ger­a­tion.

While it is cer­tainly pos­si­ble to get away from peo­ple in the more iso­lated parts of Lo­foten, other parts are bustling with tourists, espe­cially as sum­mer be­gins. Ev­ery day, the Hur­tigruten cruise ship de­posits sev­eral hun­dred vis­i­tors into Svolvaer, one of the main towns, while on a walk up the local fell of Floya I hear ac­cents from Ger­many, France and Swe­den, as well as di­alects from all over Norway. Re­cently, Frantzen has seen big groups of Asian tourists start to ar­rive as well.

The sit­u­a­tion ex­tends even to the sleepy set­tle­ment of Un­stad. Thanks to a Nor­we­gian concept called alle­mannsrett (ev­ery man’s right), vis­i­tors are al­lowed to walk wher­ever they want and can even camp for free on pri­vately owned coun­try­side. About 70 peo­ple were camp­ing when I vis­ited. The prob­lem in Un­stad – and in most places – is that there is no public toi­let. “Wher­ever you stop, you see toi­let pa­per. The sheep (com­mon in Lo­foten) are feast­ing on hu­man shit. That is not the pic­ture I want to send out to the world,” says Frantzen.

Great strain is also placed on the ar­chi­pel­ago’s in­fra­struc­ture be­cause – apart from a few side roads to spe­cific vil­lages – it has only one ar­te­rial road, the E10, con­nect­ing it to the north­ern Nor­we­gian main­land. The E10 is of­ten busy with con­voys of large camp­ing vans, which clog the roads and clus­ter at pop­u­lar beach sites. As if to prove the point, when the pho­tog­ra­pher and I drive to­wards the south-west­ern tip the next day, we are forced to stop sud­denly. A Ger­man coach full of tourists has driven off the fairly nar­row road into a ditch. A lorry from a road­side as­sis­tance com­pany is trying to ex­tri­cate it but fail­ing. Within min­utes, dozens of ve­hi­cles are backed up in both

di­rec­tions. Even­tu­ally, the lorry con­cedes tem­po­rary de­feat and al­lows the back­log to clear.

Shortly after­wards, we en­ter the gallery of Tor Esais­sen, an 80-yearold artist known lo­cally for his po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment (the en­trance door has an ‘oil-free Lo­foten’ poster as well as warn­ings about plas­tic dumped in the sea). “My re­li­gion is first and fore­most na­ture,” he says, gaz­ing out at the fells on the other side of the road. “When I hear about oil ex­plo­ration, it’s just money, money, money and we never seem to have enough. We al­ways go for more money and we never get close to real val­ues.” Asked about the trou­ble tourists have caused, he replies gravely: “To de­stroy the na­ture we live from, is to dig a grave for our­selves. What we are not clever enough in is tak­ing care of what is important.”

There are many ideas about what could be done to tem­per the im­pact of tourism – in­tro­duce a tourist tax, have quo­tas on how many peo­ple can visit, oblige them to spend so much lo­cally each day. Frantzen is clear: “I don’t think we should wel­come ev­ery­body to Lo­foten. The na­ture, the pu­rity, the value of the land – it is not for mass tourism.”

The fate of Lo­foten is likely to be de­cided in Oslo, Norway’s cap­i­tal, which can at times seem a world away. After a week on the ar­chi­pel­ago – where a day’s weather ranged from beau­ti­ful sun­shine to howl­ing wind and tor­ren­tial rain – step­ping out at Oslo air­port on a clammy day felt like ar­riv­ing in a tropical cli­mate. The de­bate about oil drilling, too, is no­tice­ably dif­fer­ent in Oslo. At its peak, about a decade ago, the oil in­dus­try ac­counted for roughly half of all Norway’s ex­ports and a quar­ter of its GDP. Gov­ern­ment sta­tis­tics sug­gest the in­dus­try has gen­er­ated more than NOK12 tril­lion in cur­rent price terms over the past 40 years, while oil com­pa­nies have in­vested more than NOK3 tril­lion in Norway.

No country, aside from Russia, has been as ag­gres­sive in open­ing up its Arc­tic region to oil. The cur­rent gov­ern­ment was forced to keep Lo­foten, Vesteralen and Senja off lim­its as part of its coali­tion agree­ment from 2013 to 2017. But it has wasted no time in open­ing up large swathes of the Bar­ents Sea, off Norway’s north coast, for ex­plo­ration. This year will see the most ex­plo­ration wells ever drilled in the area and, later this year, com­pa­nies will be able to bid on 93 new fields, an­other record. Many of the Bar­ents fields, however, are far from ex­ist­ing in­fra­struc­ture, in rel­a­tively deep water and with un­cer­tain ge­ol­ogy. The fields off the coast of Lo­foten, by con­trast, are near to land and lie fairly close to fields fur­ther south in the Nor­we­gian Sea.

Fish­er­man Karlsen states that seis­mic tests by the oil in­dus­try a decade ago scared away the cod and it took years for the fish to re­turn, al­though sci­en­tists have been un­able to prove this one way or the other. Kjer­sti Busch, who has a PhD in aqua­cul­ture and is co-head of Salt, a Lo­foten-based

“It is a place of our na­tional iden­tity. It’s the core of our fish­ing, coastal, moun­tain iden­tity. So, it’s a fight we can’t af­ford to lose. But at the same time, the oil in­dus­try is get­ting a huge amount of acreage fur­ther and fur­ther north.”

con­sul­tancy spe­cial­is­ing in coastal mat­ters, points out that the Gulf Stream ren­ders Lo­foten the warm­est part of the Arc­tic. That in­creases the amount of al­gae, which in turn boosts the fish pop­u­la­tion. She says col­lect­ing seis­mic data or drilling for oil rep­re­sent a big risk for Lo­foten’s wildlife.

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists also point to opin­ion polls that show a ris­ing number of Nor­we­gians hos­tile to ex­plo­ration around Lo­foten. One poll for the Aften­posten news­pa­per showed 43 per cent were against an im­pact study while 34 per cent were pos­i­tive. This nine-point gap compared with one of just two points be­fore the last elec­tions in 2013. “We thought, with the drop in oil prices, the pres­sure would be off,” says WWF’s Jensen. “But it has been the op­po­site. The pres­sure has never been higher. The Lo­foten Is­lands are eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble, they are cheaper than the Bar­ents Sea, the com­pa­nies know a lot about the ge­ol­ogy. That is why they are so ag­gres­sive.”

The sub­ject clearly ex­cites deep emo­tions. Both Jensen and Karlsen say they are pre­pared to take part in civil dis­obe­di­ence should Lo­foten be opened up. “I’m not much of a pro­tester. But this is the only thing I would chain my­self up for. I would go to jail over this,” says Jensen.

There are some, however, who think the de­bate about Lo­foten is one big case of mis­di­rec­tion. Frithjof Ja­cob­sen, a colum­nist at news­pa­per VG, ar­gued that the Lo­foten de­bate – while the main “di­vid­ing line” in Nor­we­gian cli­mate pol­i­tics – was in many ways a false one. It al­lows politi­cians to ar­gue about some­thing the­o­ret­i­cal with­out harm­ing any­thing and, more im­por­tantly, it lets oil com­pa­nies dis­tract en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists at the same time as they walk off with a big­ger prize: drilling preser­va­tion in the vast Bar­ents Sea. The Nor­we­gian Pe­tro­leum Direc­torate es­ti­mates about two-thirds of Norway’s undis­cov­ered re­sources lie in the Bar­ents Sea, po­ten­tially about 18 bil­lion bar­rels of oil.

“Lo­foten can’t be sac­ri­ficed for oil,” says Truls Gu­lowsen, head of Green­peace in Norway. “It is a place of our na­tional iden­tity. It’s the core of our fish­ing, coastal, moun­tain iden­tity. So, it’s a fight we can’t af­ford to lose. But at the same time, the oil in­dus­try is get­ting a huge amount of acreage fur­ther and fur­ther north.” That is why Green­peace is su­ing the Nor­we­gian gov­ern­ment over the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of drilling in the Bar­ents Sea and largely leav­ing the fight over Lo­foten to oth­ers.

Lo­cals also ex­press doubts about the tone of the de­bate. Kriss Rokkan Iversen, co-head of Salt, says the oil in­dus­try has long been de­picted as “the big bad wolf”. But other in­dus­tries also have a big im­pact on the ex­tra­or­di­nary wildlife. In­creased mar­itime traf­fic poses a big threat to fish, she says, and tourism “is al­ready out of con­trol”. Fish farm­ing is also con­tro­ver­sial for its use of an­tibi­otics to com­bat lice. “In Lo­foten, you have an enor­mous con­cen­tra­tion of nat­u­ral re­sources. It’s a con­flict over val­ues as well as over ge­og­ra­phy. And it’s not just about oil. It’s a con­flict be­tween dif­fer­ent in­dus­tries who want to use these nat­u­ral re­sources,” she says. She urges an im­pact study that would look at the ef­fects ev­ery in­dus­try has on na­ture. “We are talk­ing about what we want Norway to be in the fu­ture,” she adds.

Back in Laukvik, Karlsen drags in his haul – seven hal­ibut, a record for him off a sin­gle line. A few days ear­lier, as his boat steamed back to port, he had re­flected once more on the fight against oil. “We are fight­ing for our lives. It’s re­mark­able that we have managed to re­sist so long. The oil would last just a few years – it’s a drop in the ocean. But fish­ing has been going on here for thousands of years.” He sighs, look­ing out over the end­less sea to­wards his hunt­ing grounds. “It’s com­pletely id­i­otic. We have no fu­ture with oil. Oil has a place in the world, ev­ery­one un­der­stands that, but not here. There are a few places in the world that need to be pro­tected and this is def­i­nitely one of them.”

01 An off­shore rig plat­form in Tromso, in north­ern Norway. 02 The Lo­foten ar­chi­pel­ago is re­garded as the crown jewel among Norway’s abun­dant nat­u­ral trea­sures. 03 Lo­foten is home to a huge cod stock and the world’s largest cold-water coral reef.

Noth­ern lights over the vil­lage of Reine in Lo­foten.

Win­ter in the Lo­foten ar­chi­pel­ago.

The port of Laukvik vil­lage in Lo­foten.

A surfer in Un­stad, one of the world’s north­ern­most surf­ing spots.

08 Norway has opened swathes of the Bar­ents Sea for new oil ex­plo­ration. 09 Car­a­vans on Lo­foten, which at­tracts up to one mil­lion tourists a year.

10 Lo­cals fear that open­ing Lo­foten to oil ex­plo­ration could have a po­ten­tially dev­as­tat­ing im­pact on fish­ing in the region.

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