Norway’s government has announced that it will now allow oil exploration projects far north of the previously defined limits in the Barents Sea. The reason: the retreating ice edge. Environmentalists accuse the government of manipulating data, explains André Anwar in Stockholm.
Global warming is altering the face of the Arctic. A recent study from the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington in Seattle found that the annual average thickness of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean basin has dropped from 3.59 metres to just 1.25 metres – a decline of 65 per cent.
For some, this represents an opportunity by opening up oil and gas exploration in the resource-rich part of the northern Barents Sea divided between Norway and Russia in 2010. “Now that the ice edge in the Barents Sea has shifted north, it’s logical,” said the Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg.
Government accused of manipulating data
But the push into the Arctic by the minority government, made up of conservatives and right-wing populists but also supported by liberals and Christian democrats, is highly controversial.
The region and the ice edge in the Barents Sea consists of small and large ice floes that are ecologically important for the marine life because it is where the plankton, a food source, is intensively produced. Fish, marine mammals and sea birds linger along the ice edge to feed. An oil spill there would be devastating.
In fact, all the parties represented in parliament had previously agreed that the area now being opened up should be shielded from the oil industry because of its ecologically sensitive and in part unique environment. But now that oil exploration and production activities could be profitable there, all good intentions are simply forgotten, critics charge.
“There is consensus in Norwegian politics not to allow drilling at the ice edge. The government is now adjusting the science to suit its economic interests,” said Silje Lundberg from the Norwegian environmental organisation Bellona. She accuses the government of “manipulating” data measuring the limit of the ice edge to favour the oil industry.
Environment minister defends decision
The Norwegian government’s new definition puts the edge of the sea ice where it reaches its maximum extent in April of at least 30 per cent ice concentration. The former ice edge, which was far more to the south, was based on values from 1967 to 1989.
“We have applied the same definition used by Parliament as a decision-making tool in 2006 and 2011. But with newer values,” said environment minister Tine Sundtoft to the public broadcasting agency NRK, adding that it is not the government’s fault the ice edge has retreated to the north.