Lofoten's Troubled Waters: Norway's Beautiful Lofoten Islands Boast a Long Fishing Tradition and Burgeoning Tourism Industry. but Offshore Oil Exploration Could Soon Upset the Dynamic in This Arctic Idyll

By Allen, Daniel | Geographical, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Lofoten's Troubled Waters: Norway's Beautiful Lofoten Islands Boast a Long Fishing Tradition and Burgeoning Tourism Industry. but Offshore Oil Exploration Could Soon Upset the Dynamic in This Arctic Idyll


Allen, Daniel, Geographical


Ringed by snowy peaks, illuminated by the soft tones of the ever-shifting Arctic light, Ballstad Harbour presents an iconic Lofoten landscape. Reflections of rust coloured rorbuer (traditional fisherman's cabins) and triangular fish-drying racks shimmer in the placid waters, while rank upon rank of brightly coloured boats bob gently at the quayside. Having braved late-winter gales, the crew of the wooden-hulled trawler Roholmen are happy to be returning home.

With his reversed baseball cap holding an extravagant shock of white hair in check, the Roholmen's wild-eyed skipper clambers onto the dock to direct the unloading. A procession of dripping metal containers filled with skrei (Arctic cod) emerge from the ship's hold as the day's marine bounty, already gutted and beheaded, and are taken away by fork-lift truck for processing. Aquavit toasts will follow late into the night.

The Roholmen's crew trail in the wake of generations of Scandinavian fishermen. Since the age of the Vikings, the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway have been the epicentre of a great Arctic cod fishery, as millions of skrei migrate annually from the northerly Barents Sea to their spawning grounds just offshore. From cuisine and clothing to art and architecture, this precious fish has played a pivotal role in shaping island society.

But despite its 1,000-year history, the economic and cultural importance of Lofoten's cod fishery may soon be diminished by another natural resource--oil. Experts believe that up to 20 per cent of the Norwegian Shelf's remaining petroleum reserves could lie hidden under the waters off the Lofoten and nearby Vesteralen islands. And Norway's oil industry is keen to start drilling.

SUPPLYING DEMAND

Statoil, the richest company in Norway, is also one of the world's largest net sellers of crude oil. 'We believe the area of shelf adjacent to the Lofoten Islands has significant oil and gas potential,' says Oyvind Dahl-Stamnes, vice president of Statoil's North Area Initiative. 'There's some uncertainty, of course. Some people have estimated there may be 1.3 billion barrels of oil here--our estimates suggest the figure could be as high as two billion. It could be similar to Norway's other North Sea fields, where we found a lot more oil than we expected.'

The Lofoten discovery comes at a time when Norway's online oil fields are rapidly running dry. Norwegian oil production peaked at around 3.4 million barrels per day in 2001 and has been steadily declining ever since. According to the Stavanger-based Norwegian Petroleum Directorate, it will fair six per cent this year, and the drop-off will become more severe after 2020. Even if a Lofoten field was opened to exploration and drilling tomorrow, it would take at least 15 years for production to start.

'The Lofoten area is the most promising of the areas on the Norwegian Shelf that are currently unavailable to the oil industry,' says Erling Kvadsheim, manager of licensing policy for the Norwegian Oil Industry Association (OLF). 'Norwegian oir production is dropping at a worrying rate, and there is now a strong need to counter that production loss by discovering and tapping new fields.

'Production can be brought on relatively quickly in Lofoten, earlier than any other unopened area on the shelf,' he continues. 'In order to keep up the interest among large international oil companies, new prospective exploration areas must be made available. In the opinion of OLF, Lofoten should be first in line.'

Oil has been a cornerstone of the Norwegian economy for the past four decades. More than 20 billion barrels of oil have been pumped up from the Norwegian Shelf since production started in 1971, and Norway's petroleum industry currently employs about 80,000 people.

Low domestic consumption has made the country the world's third-largest oil exporter, and resulted in a huge cash surplus that has been channelled into the country's Government Pension Fund (formerly the Petroleum Fund of Norway). …

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