The Lofoten Islands are a natural wonder, perched inside the Arctic Circle off the northwestern tip of Norway.
This is a rugged land of fish eagles and whales, precipitous cliffs and fjords and a rolling Atlantic crashing onto stunning beaches.
It’s is where generations of fishermen have profited from the bountiful annual cod migration and where the northern lights weave their luminous mystery in the black night of winter.
Here cruise ships dock year-round and tourism is 100 percent booming.
But the Lofoten archipelago is in the crosshairs of “Big Oil”.
The geologists know that in these coastal waters lies an untapped oil field worth an estimated $60bn.
And their bosses want a licence to explore.
But so far they have been denied, and Lofoten is protected, for now.
Norway is a nation made rich by four decades of oil and gas extraction with a sovereign wealth fund worth a colossal $1tn. The fund itself owns an astonishing 1.3 percent of all stocks listed globally.
Like all petroleum producing nations, Norway has experienced a downturn in recent years.
But now significant new discoveries in the North Sea and the Barents Sea have led to a dramatic upswing in production.
Last year Norway’s energy minister said that the Lofoten islands “must at some point come into play”. The potential profitability of near-shore fossil fuels, it seems, is hard to resist.
But the politics are far from straightforward.
Norway’s Conservative-led bloc won a narrow majority in the general election in September, and while they’re eager to open up the whole of Lofoten for oil and gas exploration, they need to shore up their position in parliament.
Deals still need to be done with other parties who do not all share the government’s fossil fuel vision.
The fate of Lofoten’s waters hangs very much in the balance as these political deals are negotiated.
‘Fishing industry under direct threat’
Like his forefathers, Bjorn Hugo Bendikson has been fishing the waters of the Lofoten Islands nearly all his life.
|Bjorn Hugo Bendikson fears that oil exploration will threaten the fishing industry in Lofoten [Al Jazeera]|
The archipelago is host to the world’s biggest cold-water coral reef and the breeding ground for 70 percent of all fish caught in the Norwegian and Barents Sea.
“The fish stocks are very, very healthy,” Bendikson told Al Jazeera.
“And that’s because the sea is so clean and full of life,” he said. “The Gulf Stream runs right up here.”
Bendikson said the islanders have several concerns.
“The oil companies will perform seismic tests, which scare big fish away and also have the potential to harm the billions of eggs that are spawned in these waters every year,” he said.
“And of course down the line, there’s the very real danger of an oil spill which would be catastrophic to marine life and to the island communities. It puts Lofoten’s very successful fishing industry under direct threat. It’s unacceptable in every way.”
‘We do not want oil exploration in Lofoten’
Every day of the week, 11 ships owned by the Norwegian cruise line, Hurtigruten, ply the Norwegian coast.
The cruise line has been at sea since 1893, taking local passengers and goods as well as tourists from around the world, paying good dollars for the spectacular scenery and the Arctic experience.
Oil and gas platforms do not feature in the Hurtigruten brochure.
“We have been very clear on this, we do not want oil and gas exploration in Lofoten,” said Hurtigruten’s chief executive officer Daniel Skjeldam.
“It’s one of the most beautiful areas in Norway and creates sustainable tourism, which treated in the right way, can be sustainable forever,” he added.
“And that obviously is not the case for the fossil fuel industry.”
Hurtigruten is responsible for about 15 percent of all foreign overnight guests in Norway.
Skjeldam said he is surprised the government is interested in exploring Lofoten, “given its beauty and its importance as a fishery and tourist destination”.
“We as a company are not against oil and gas extraction in itself but we are when it is done in a sensitive area like this,” he added.
Norway opens up Arctic
Norway recently introduced legislation to become climate neutral by 2030. And with hydro-electricity supplying nearly 100 percent of the nation’s power, it is well placed to do so.
But a recent report by a Washington-based research group Oil Change International says Norway is exporting 10 times the amount of its domestic emissions to other countries, through the extraction and export of fossil fuel. Indeed Norway is the world’s third-largest exporter of oil and gas.
Of course, down the line, there’s the very real danger of an oil spill which would be catastrophic to marine life and to the island communities. It puts Lofoten’s very successful fishing industry under direct threat. It’s unacceptable in every way.
Bjorn Hugo Bendikson, Lofoten fisherman
And it’s rapidly issuing new exploration permits in the Barents Sea in the Arctic, just to the northeast of the Lofoten Islands. According to the report, if these prospective fields come online it will increase Norway’s emissions by 150 percent.
Greenpeace and Nature and Youth, an environmental organisation in Norway, are suing the government over the new permits and opening up areas in the Arctic for drilling.
Will Lofoten be ruled out of the equation?
Yet, public opinion seems to be going in the other direction.
A recent opinion poll conducted by Ipsos on behalf of Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet, showed that for the first time more Norwegians were in favour of leaving oil in the ground to protect the climate.
The government is being pulled every which way. Now, just as it continues to authorise oil exploration, it’s empowered a commission to evaluate the economic effects of dealing with climate change. That includes examining the viability of the ongoing extraction of oil and gas.
Norway’s Minister of Climate and the Environment said last month: “Given the energy and transport revolutions, fossil energy resources will be of less value over time.
“The energy transition to renewables is going faster than anyone thought. And almost any scenario is being out-competed by reality.”
This study has been broadly welcomed by environmental groups like Norwegian NGO Bellona. Their marine expert Sigurd Enge believes the end of Norway’s oil industry is now on the horizon.
“There are not many areas for the government to offer the petroleum industry. And they are all in the high north or close to the coast.”
Enge said that Norway’s management of its petroleum resources in the past has been a role model for many oil-producing countries. “We need to make sure the fairy tale gets a good end,” he said.
And that means, he says, as the government tussles with its oil and gas policy in this changing energy world, extraordinary locations like Lofoten must be ruled out of the equation.