Burning up: Local environmentalists tell Norway’s government not to bring Arctic oil to a firefight

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They were forced to give ground to Mother Nature’s Arctic persona before making their objections heard. Their hope is those targeted by the protests will make similar concessions – or be forced to do so through legal action.

About 20 people gathered around a “warning fire” on the beach at Sjøområdet on Saturday as part of nationwide protest against oil drilling in Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja. The protest occurred two days before Norway’s government proposed opening a record 93 blocks in the Barents Sea to drilling, including  ten in the so-called “Svalbard zone.”

The local protest was originally scheduled atop a plateau, but relocated due to heavy snow and strong winds, with participants enduring temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius and winds up to 50 kilometers an hour.

After lighting the fire – and failing to get their banners to stay upright on ice blocks – a trio of speakers lit up the night.

”We stand here tonight together to tell these companies and politicians, that we will not take it,” said Katharina Beutner, leader of The University Centre in Svalbard’s Student Environmental Group. “We stand here in the name of those who can’t speak up for themselves, we stand for the fish, cold water reefs, sea birds and mammals. We stand for an oil-free future in the Lofoten, Versterålen, Senja and Arctic.”

Most of the crowd were students from UNIS. Unlike other places in the world these students mostly stay here for a few weeks to a few months. Still, they felt the urge to get involved in what is largely a local issue.

Reminding her listeners what fires can be used for, Beutner said ”we face an enemy just as dangerous, powerful and threatening.”

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A map shows a record number of blocks in the Barents Sea that Norway wants to open to oil drilling. Map by regjeringen.no.

Norway’s Conservative-led government has aggressively expanded drilling activity to new heights northward in recent years and Beutner urged people to remember “‘2017 is an election year and it’s up to every single resident of Norway to stop these things from happening with their vote being given to politicians aiming for an environmental friendly and future oriented politic.”

Some of those opposed to drilling are resorting to more than protests and political appeals – and they may get some help, ironically, from Russia and other countries who are expected to argue Norway doesn’t have exclusive rights to the Svalbard zone (the ten blocks located on the 74th parallel – equal to the latitude of Bjørnøya) for drilling.

Greenpeace and the group Nature and Youth are legally challenging the Norwegian government’s the previous round of licensing, with hearings in the case scheduled to start in November. The groups claim the licensing violates Norway’s Constitution Paragraph 112 which states “natural resources shall be managed on the basis of comprehensive long-term considerations which will safeguard this right for future generations.”

“Let’s just say the Green Party hopes to reverse this craziness after the election,” stated  Espen Klungseth Rotevatn, local leader of the party and another speaker at the protest, when asked about Monday’s proposed drilling blocks.

In addition to the 10 proposed blocks in the Svalbard zone, about 35 are just below it along the 73rd parallel. Greenpeace and other environmental groups have argued a spill could spread be extremely difficult to contain and cleanup due to the harsh weather and terrain.

International challenges about rights to specific areas have been fought across the Arctic for decades, with Norway now facing challenges to its interpretation of the Svalbard Treaty from the EU about commcerial fishing rights as well as from Russia about oil exploration.

But even if such challenges stall Norway’s drilling ambitions, it may simply pace the way for other countries to move in. Russia, for instance, announced last week one of its research vessel will spend 24 days studying the resource potential of the Svalbard shelf this summer, ten days longer than originally planned.

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