Government OKs oil drilling in Barents

Norway's three-party coalition government confirmed Monday that it will allow oil and gas drilling in the Barents Sea, but block such activities near the scenic Lofoten archipelago.

Norway's three-party coalition government confirmed Monday that it will allow oil and gas drilling in the Barents Sea, but block such activities near the scenic Lofoten archipelago. State oil company Statoil already had dropped drilling plans in the area.

Oil and Energy Minister Einar Steensnaes, trying to appease both the oil and fishing industries and environmentalists, insisted that measures to prevent oil spills be strengthened.

He said the government would allow drilling in three areas of the Barents Sea next year and in 2005. His plan has the support of a majority in the Norwegian parliament.

No oil or gas drilling, however, will be allowed off Lofoten, which not only is a breathtakingly scenic area but also a rich fishing grounds. Norway's powerful fishing industry has actively lobbied against any oil or gas activity in the area.

Environmentalists hailed the decision, but continue to oppose drilling in the Barents as well.

Norway's oil industry, however, has been pushing for new exploration areas as it fears wells in the North Sea will eventually run dry.

Some political parties oppose all Arctic drilling, with the Socialist Left (SV) charging that Steensnaes was pressured into allowing the Barents drilling by Statoil. Hallgeir Langeland of SV said there "should have been wider debate" on the issue in parliament.

He also worried that long-term protection of Lofoten is far from assured. The small Center Party also was disappointed that drilling will be allowed in the Barents.