As his fishing boat bobs its way out of the port, Leif Karlsen points to the house where he was born 63 years ago. He lets out nearly two kilometres’ worth of line while we watch the majestic, jagged peaks that dominate this part of the Arctic Circle framing the sea. Then he gestures towards another dwelling: “My grandmother lives there; she is 103.”
Karlsen has fished the waters off Norway’s Lofoten Islands since he was 15. The spectacular archipelago in the north-west – widely prized as the crown jewel in a country with abundant natural treasure – is known for a bounteous population of Arctic cod, which has formed the basis of its economy for almost a millennium. It is a bright day and outside the Arctic cod season, so Karlsen is here to catch halibut. The haul is expected to be slight – “I will be satisfied with one,” he says in his strong, lilting Lofoten dialect over the chug of the motor.
A little outside the port of Laukvik, about 950 miles from Oslo, Karlsen throws out the buoy to mark where his line begins. “It’s true that fishing goes up and down over time,” he says, gesturing with his dexterous fingers. “Big business has eaten up a large part of coastal Norway,” he continues, lamenting how companies are squeezing out small fishermen by buying up quotas and using larger vessels. Then the mood darkens still further. For Lofoten is not just home to a huge cod stock and the world’s largest cold-water coral reef, it also has another resource lurking under the surface of the water. About 1.3 billion barrels of oil equivalent are thought to exist in the archipelago as well as the neighbouring island groups of Vesteralen and Senja. At today’s prices, this is worth about USD60 billion.
The issue of whether to open up the archipelago to potential exploration was one of the most controversial debates ahead of the recent national elections. All three of Norway’s largest parties – likely to capture two-thirds of the votes – were in favour of a so-called impact study, the usual first step towards drilling. “To say it simply,” says Karlsen, “it is totally idiotic and completely senseless to start up with oil here in Lofoten.” He cites a priest and poet from the 17th century, Petter Dass: “Without the Arctic cod we will suffer here – it is like gold to us.”
The fight over Lofoten, however, is not just a local matter. It is nothing less than a battle for the soul of Norway and what kind of country it wants to be. For decades, the nation’s economy and jobs market have been boosted by oil and gas. It has used the revenues from petroleum to create the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, which owns on average 1.3 per cent of every single listed company on earth.
This new debate illustrates an uncomfortable truth. While it preaches environmental responsibility on a global stage, Norway is also western Europe’s biggest petroleum producer. Environmentalists and some foreign business people accuse it of hypocrisy for backing the Paris agreement on climate change while drilling in the Arctic. The dual nature of Norway’s position was demonstrated when the country’s parliament ordered its sovereign wealth fund to divest itself from coal companies while a similar move over oil and gas groups was also considered.
There are many who argue that resources like those in Lofoten need to be left untouched. Climate scientists believe that, in order to limit global warming to 2°C, much of the remaining oil in the world must be left in the ground. A 2015 University College London study said no oil and gas resources could be exploited in the Arctic if the target is to be reached. Many believe that Norway could do more with other industries such as fishing and tourism. “Lofoten is the Amazon and Great Barrier Reef of Norway,” says Nina Jensen, head of the environmental group WWF in Norway. “It is the most unique area. If you can’t leave oil and gas resources in an area like that, then nothing is sacred. That is why this battle is so important.”
Two hours down the only main road in Lofoten – but just 32 miles as the crow flies – lies the village of Unstad. The sun has gone and a brisk wind from the Atlantic is bringing in heavy rain, which lashes down on a dozen or so black dots out in the sea. They are surfers waiting to catch a wave in one of the northernmost surfing spots on earth. In 1963, Norwegian sailors saw surfers in Sydney and they decided to try it out in Lofoten on their return. They fashioned their crude surfboards by imitating what they saw on the cover of a Beach Boys album. Marion Frantzen, the jovial daughter of one of those sailors, now runs Unstad Arctic Surf with her husband, offering not just board rental and a surf school but also cabins and a café. The business has rapidly expanded, with surfers coming to ride waves under the midnight sun in summer and the Northern Lights in winter. “It’s only quiet in November, December and May,” she says.
Like Karlsen – and indeed most Lofoten locals – she is resolutely against the idea of oil drilling. “I’m so against oil. We are hysterical about it. They hype it up but there is nothing for us. Most tourists come to Lofoten for the nature, the purity. Are we going to risk that? For what? It’s about Norway’s identity, 100 per cent.” Sitting in the café as the rain splatters against the windows, Frantzen raises the issue of jobs. The Norwegian government estimates that oil could bring between 400 and 1,100 jobs annually to the local area. This statistic is met with consternation by everyone I talk to. “A few hundred jobs,” says Frantzen. “What are 400 jobs? I employ 18 here, and it’s a small business.” Karlsen says: “If they leave us in peace, we can do a lot more (than 400).”
For anyone thinking that the easy alternative to oil is simply to go for tourism and more fishing, Frantzen and others, however, are quick to deflate expectations. Already some locals believe that too many tourists are coming. The Lofoten tourist centre estimates that as many as a million tourists a year visit the archipelago, home to just 23,000 residents. “The string has been pulled to such an extent that when it breaks it will be a huge problem. The people who work in the tourism industry, we are not satisfied. If you go into the local town, you can queue for an hour just to buy a pint of milk,” Frantzen says, with perhaps a hint of exaggeration.
While it is certainly possible to get away from people in the more isolated parts of Lofoten, other parts are bustling with tourists, especially as summer begins. Every day, the Hurtigruten cruise ship deposits several hundred visitors into Svolvaer, one of the main towns, while on a walk up the local fell of Floya I hear accents from Germany, France and Sweden, as well as dialects from all over Norway. Recently, Frantzen has seen big groups of Asian tourists start to arrive as well.
The situation extends even to the sleepy settlement of Unstad. Thanks to a Norwegian concept called allemannsrett (every man’s right), visitors are allowed to walk wherever they want and can even camp for free on privately owned countryside. About 70 people were camping when I visited. The problem in Unstad – and in most places – is that there is no public toilet. “Wherever you stop, you see toilet paper. The sheep (common in Lofoten) are feasting on human shit. That is not the picture I want to send out to the world,” says Frantzen.
Great strain is also placed on the archipelago’s infrastructure because – apart from a few side roads to specific villages – it has only one arterial road, the E10, connecting it to the northern Norwegian mainland. The E10 is often busy with convoys of large camping vans, which clog the roads and cluster at popular beach sites. As if to prove the point, when the photographer and I drive towards the south-western tip the next day, we are forced to stop suddenly. A German coach full of tourists has driven off the fairly narrow road into a ditch. A lorry from a roadside assistance company is trying to extricate it but failing. Within minutes, dozens of vehicles are backed up in both directions. Eventually, the lorry concedes temporary defeat and allows the backlog to clear.
Shortly afterwards, we enter the gallery of Tor Esaissen, an 80-yearold artist known locally for his political engagement (the entrance door has an ‘oil-free Lofoten’ poster as well as warnings about plastic dumped in the sea). “My religion is first and foremost nature,” he says, gazing out at the fells on the other side of the road. “When I hear about oil exploration, it’s just money, money, money and we never seem to have enough. We always go for more money and we never get close to real values.” Asked about the trouble tourists have caused, he replies gravely: “To destroy the nature we live from, is to dig a grave for ourselves. What we are not clever enough in is taking care of what is important.”
There are many ideas about what could be done to temper the impact of tourism – introduce a tourist tax, have quotas on how many people can visit, oblige them to spend so much locally each day. Frantzen is clear: “I don’t think we should welcome everybody to Lofoten. The nature, the purity, the value of the land – it is not for mass tourism.” The fate of Lofoten is likely to be decided in Oslo, Norway’s capital, which can at times seem a world away. After a week on the archipelago – where a day’s weather ranged from beautiful sunshine to howling wind and torrential rain – stepping out at Oslo airport on a clammy day felt like arriving in a tropical climate. The debate about oil drilling, too, is noticeably different in Oslo. At its peak, about a decade ago, the oil industry accounted for roughly half of all Norway’s exports and a quarter of its GDP. Government statistics suggest the industry has generated more than NOK12 trillion in current price terms over the past 40 years, while oil companies have invested more than NOK3 trillion in Norway.
No country, aside from Russia, has been as aggressive in opening up its Arctic region to oil. The current government was forced to keep Lofoten, Vesteralen and Senja off limits as part of its coalition agreement from 2013 to 2017. But it has wasted no time in opening up large swathes of the Barents Sea, off Norway’s north coast, for exploration. This year will see the most exploration wells ever drilled in the area and, later this year, companies will be able to bid on 93 new fields, another record. Many of the Barents fields, however, are far from existing infrastructure, in relatively deep water and with uncertain geology. The fields off the coast of Lofoten, by contrast, are near to land and lie fairly close to fields further south in the Norwegian Sea.
Fisherman Karlsen states that seismic tests by the oil industry a decade ago scared away the cod and it took years for the fish to return, although scientists have been unable to prove this one way or the other. Kjersti Busch, who has a PhD in aquaculture and is co-head of Salt, a Lofoten-based consultancy specialising in coastal matters, points out that the Gulf Stream renders Lofoten the warmest part of the Arctic. That increases the amount of algae, which in turn boosts the fish population. She says collecting seismic data or drilling for oil represent a big risk for Lofoten’s wildlife.
Environmentalists also point to opinion polls that show a rising number of Norwegians hostile to exploration around Lofoten. One poll for the Aftenposten newspaper showed 43 per cent were against an impact study while 34 per cent were positive. This nine-point gap compared with one of just two points before the last elections in 2013. “We thought, with the drop in oil prices, the pressure would be off,” says WWF’s Jensen. “But it has been the opposite. The pressure has never been higher. The Lofoten Islands are easily accessible, they are cheaper than the Barents Sea, the companies know a lot about the geology. That is why they are so aggressive.”
The subject clearly excites deep emotions. Both Jensen and Karlsen say they are prepared to take part in civil disobedience should Lofoten be opened up. “I’m not much of a protester. But this is the only thing I would chain myself up for. I would go to jail over this,” says Jensen. There are some, however, who think the debate about Lofoten is one big case of misdirection. Frithjof Jacobsen, a columnist at newspaper VG, argued that the Lofoten debate – while the main “dividing line” in Norwegian climate politics – was in many ways a false one. It allows politicians to argue about something theoretical without harming anything and, more importantly, it lets oil companies distract environmentalists at the same time as they walk off with a bigger prize: drilling preservation in the vast Barents Sea. The Norwegian Petroleum Directorate estimates about two-thirds of Norway’s undiscovered resources lie in the Barents Sea, potentially about 18 billion barrels of oil.
“Lofoten can’t be sacrificed for oil,” says Truls Gulowsen, head of Greenpeace in Norway. “It is a place of our national identity. It’s the core of our fishing, coastal, mountain identity. So, it’s a fight we can’t afford to lose. But at the same time, the oil industry is getting a huge amount of acreage further and further north.” That is why Greenpeace is suing the Norwegian government over the constitutionality of drilling in the Barents Sea and largely leaving the fight over Lofoten to others.
Locals also express doubts about the tone of the debate. Kriss Rokkan Iversen, co-head of Salt, says the oil industry has long been depicted as “the big bad wolf”. But other industries also have a big impact on the extraordinary wildlife. Increased maritime traffic poses a big threat to fish, she says, and tourism “is already out of control”. Fish farming is also controversial for its use of antibiotics to combat lice. “In Lofoten, you have an enormous concentration of natural resources. It’s a conflict over values as well as over geography. And it’s not just about oil. It’s a conflict between different industries who want to use these natural resources,” she says. She urges an impact study that would look at the effects every industry has on nature. “We are talking about what we want Norway to be in the future,” she adds.
Back in Laukvik, Karlsen drags in his haul – seven halibut, a record for him off a single line. A few days earlier, as his boat steamed back to port, he had reflected once more on the fight against oil. “We are fighting for our lives. It’s remarkable that we have managed to resist so long. The oil would last just a few years – it’s a drop in the ocean. But fishing has been going on here for thousands of years.” He sighs, looking out over the endless sea towards his hunting grounds. “It’s completely idiotic. We have no future with oil. Oil has a place in the world, everyone understands that, but not here. There are a few places in the world that need to be protected and this is definitely one of them.”
TEXT RICHARD MILNE @ THE FINANCIAL TIMES LIMITED 2017