Norway’s newest oil drilling areas are almost literally as close to Svalbard as possible, creating the archipelago’s version of a border debate. Those approaching are harboring dreams of the richest economic opportunity in the region, while defenders of the homeland are enraged about the drastic problems that might result from mass migration.
Nine new drilling licenses for 47 blocks in the Barents Sea were unveiled by the Norwegian government Monday, with the closest block about 30 kilometers to the east and just barely south of Bjørnøya. A total of six blocks extend the 74 degrees latitude north – the same as Bjørnøya – and another 27 are at or beyond 73 degrees.
Norway has steadily and increasingly expanded further north with its drilling licenses in recent years, especially following studies showing the northern regions of the Barents Sea have far more promising production potential than blocks already explored to the south. While oil drilling is banned in Svalbard’s protected marine zone, the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate is expressing enthusiasm about the country’s 24th license round and includes the biggest-ever opening of territory this far north.
“Our analysis shows that the biggest undiscovered resource potential on the Norwegian shelf is in the Barents Sea (and) we believe that this is the area where big discoveries are most likely,” Torgeir Stordal, the agency’s director of exploration, said in a prepared statement.
Oil and gas in the seas surrounding Svalbard are seen by Norway as a critical economic and strategic asset, especially with other Arctic and sub-Arctic nations fighting for claims to far-north areas that may contain a quarter of the world’s remaining area.
“The petroleum industry is Norway’s largest and most important industry,” said Minister of Oil and Energy Terje Søviknes in a prepared statement. “By continuing our predictable, stable and long-term petroleum policy, the government is preparing for the petroleum industry to progress further. This is important both for Norwegian jobs, for Norwegian competitiveness and for the financing of the welfare state.”
Environmental organizations expressed strong disagreement, noting the costly and catastrophic effects a spill or other accident might cause so close to some of the world’s most pristine and prolific wildlife areas. Friends of the Earth Norway, in a press release, states 23 of the 47 blocks are in areas opposed by the Norwegian Environmental Directorate and Norwegian Polar Institute, and five more are in areas where input from the two agencies wasn’t sought. Twenty of the blocks are less than 100 kilometers from Bjørnøya.
“This is a clear breach of the agreement in the government’s declaration to save the most vulnerable areas we have,” said Silje Ask Lundberg, head of Friends of the Earth Norway
“The oil policy of the government is a disaster for the climate and for our valuable marine areas.”
Eight companies have license stakes in the drilling areas, with AkerBP receiving a dominant majority of them.