BLOG: Conservative victory in Norway: What does it mean for the Arctic?

Norway's new Prime Minister Erna Solberg.(Stian Lysberg Solum, /NTB Scanpix / AP)
Norway’s new Prime Minister Erna Solberg.(Stian Lysberg Solum, /NTB Scanpix / AP)
In Norway’s elections on Monday, the Conservative party (Høyre) won the most seats, sweeping Labour Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg from power after eight years.

The Conservatives, however, did not win enough seats to form a majority government. As such, headed by new Prime Minister Erna Solberg, they will likely ally with the populist, anti-immigrant Progress Party, which won 29 seats. The Conservatives will probably also have to work with the two small, centrist parties, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals. VG has an excellent suite of infographics illustrating the election results for the visually inclined. What does the election mean for Norway’s Arctic? In this post, I look at the implications of the Conservatives’ rise to power on Norway’s foreign and domestic affairs in the northern sphere.

Foreign Affairs

First of all, both Labour and the Conservatives are concerned about oil, the environment, climate change, and Russia, so Norway’s general priorities in the Arctic probably won’t change. Like Labour, the Conservatives also support the Arctic Council and NATO. Morten Høglund, a member of the Progress Party who did not seek reelection as a member of Parliament this type around, will be the new special advisor for Arctic Foreign Affairs. He has a lot of experience in the Arctic, having headed the Norwegian delegation to the Conference of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region (CPAR) since 2009, a body of which he was also chair. He also served on the Foreign Affairs Committee (now part of the enlarged Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee) since first being elected to Parliament in 2001.

Like everyone in the Arctic these days, Høglund is an advocate for cooperation and the Arctic Council. In a September 2012, Høglund was interviewed at a CPAR meeting in Akureyri. With regard to the Arctic Council, he avowed, “It’s been a success, but we think it’s time to move ahead, step up the work, make it a full-fledged international organization, get a budget. We have a new secretariat which is underway, but we need to focus on more efficient work getting legally binding agreements on more areas. We have one in place on SAR, we are waiting for one on oil spill preparedness, but also other areas need to be covered. So making the Arctic Council a more efficient, more robust organization is really, we believe, key for strengthening Arctic governance.” A video of the full interview is below.

Domestic Affairs

The Conservatives’ platform for northern Norway is “Stable and Positive Development for the North,” a slogan that could emanate from any Norwegian party, or any Arctic country for that matter. The Conservatives modestly state on their website, “Norway is not the greatest in the North, but we can – and should – be the leading knowledge nation.” This goal reflects a desire to invest in research and development in the Arctic, particularly in areas such as environmental technology and offshore petroleum engineering. Less modestly, in the Conservatives’ “Nord-Norgeprogram” (North Norway Program), they declare,”By coming early in the process of extraction of oil in the Barents Sea, Norway will be totally in command in environmentally friendly technologies and can then export this technology to Russia.” Like Labour, then, the Conservatives are big proponents of the oil industry in northern Norway. This is ironic because even as the Conservatives seek to diversify the economy and rely less on oil, they still want to controversially push forward with hydrocarbon exploration in the Lofoten and Vesterålen Islands, which I will write about more in my next post. Erna Solberg actually spoke on oil and gas development at Arctic Frontiers in 2008, but unfortunately, there’s no transcript or recording available.

The change in government could be more noticeable at the local level in northern Norway. In January, Conservative representatives from the three northernmost counties of Nordland, Troms, and Finnmark met. The mayor of Tromso, a Conservative, called Norway’s north a “land of possibility where the party has hardly begun.” Ine Eriksen Søreide, a Conservative representative from Oslo who chairs the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, stated, “The government’s priority in the High North has mainly been a foreign policy priority, while it has been communicated as a local priority. The message is vague and little binding and has not triggered the enormous potential of the region.”

She continued, “Knowledge, presence and activity are key when talking about the North, and the Conservatives have a lot of expectations that are not addressed in the message from the government. This is the theme as the opening of Lofoten and Vesterålen, simplification of visa rules around border crossings with Russia, and the development of language programs for Russian, make it easier to start businesses and focus on freight transport by sea.” Thus, the Conservatives perhaps prematurely take the opening of Lofoten and Vesterålen as a given. They are also determined to make it easier to do cross-border business with Russia through facilitating work, travel, and cross-cultural awareness by increasing the Russian language program in northern Norway. The Conservatives also hope to assist municipalities’ drive for self-sufficiency by allowing them to retain a larger share of their tax revenues.

Transportation links

In terms of transportation, the Conservatives encourage the creation of cross-Barents region flights into the counties of Troms and Finnmark since they are disconnected from national and international rail networks. The party also wants to take advantage of the northern counties’ geographical locations by capitalizing on seafood exports to the Far East and United States by air. At sea, the Conservatives support Hurtigruten, the Norwegian coastal steamer company that runs from Bergen to Kirkenes, saying that they will work so that the company has “an obvious place in the future, with port development an important focus.” Hurtigruten was forced to restructure itself and make cutbacks earlier this year, letting 30 percent of its employees go.

The Conservatives’ program for northern Norway also has a section on reindeer herding. They seek to make reindeer herding and farming equal in terms of fees and charges and will consider reducing taxes rather than boosting subsidies in order to support the industry. The document claims that the party wants to work for a “positive development of reindeer husbandry, and will speed up the work of a comprehensive audit of reindeer husbandry. It must be made for increased economic growth potential in grazing districts and reindeer herders.”

Reindeer herding

The stress is on capitalism and growth rather than ensuring the integrity of reindeer herding itself. Moreover, the focus on bureaucratic topics like regulations and taxes seems to ignore the bigger issue, which is that the needs of oil and energy inevitably trample those of reindeer herders regardless of which political party is in power. Like Labour, the Conservatives strongly favor the development of the $500-600 million power transmission line from a substation in Nordland county to Balsfjord in Troms county, which the current government approved last month. The 420kV line, meant to fuel Norway’s northern industries and encourage wind power generation, will mostly run alongside another existing 420kV line (Electric Light & Power).

While the Sami contested the construction of the line, (Labour) Petroleum and Energy Minister Ola Borten Moe noted that the dispute had been settled. But this is just one dispute in a slew of 260 proposed projects under examination by the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE). In 2009, Nils Henrik Sara, head of the Sami Reindeer Herders Association, remarked, “I had never thought that there were so many power projects underway in areas within reindeer husbandry…For us, it only means one thing, namely, less pasture for reindeer. Loss of pastures is the biggest challenge reindeer husbandry is facing.”

The Balsfjord line

It’s doubtful that reindeer herders can get in the way of the oil industry. UPI notes that with the Balsfjord line, the settlement involves “a number of mitigation measures in the interests of reindeer herding,” where the power line passes through Gratangen, in Troms county. The route has also been changed around Balsfjord’s Kjosvatn Lake after locals complained that the natural landscape would be negatively affected. But the bottom line is that the line is being built with the support of both Labour and the Conservatives. Statnett’s ultimate goal is to build a power line from Balsfjord all the way to Hammerfest. From this port city in northern Norway, the line will provide electricity to Statoil’s Melkøya LNG project and ENI’s Goliat oil field, in the Barents Sea. More information on Statnett’s plans is available on their website (in Norwegian).

Besides making a few concessions to reindeer herders and local residents, Statnett is funding these Sami-inspired sculpture masts that will hold up the power lines. The architecture firm behind the project, Ghilardi and Hellsten, expresses, “The masts are therefore designed as landmarks that strengthen the identity of the place and represent the Sami activity at Heia.” It is unclear how these power masts can strengthen the identity of the place when they are literally supporting the very power line that weakens the area’s traditional economy and identity. I suppose it only works if reindeer herding is supposed to be represented rather than practiced. The website continues, “The symbolic silhouette will attract the attention of both cars passing by and visitors at Heia.” The firm conveniently forgets to mention how the “symbolic silhouette” will assist a project that tramples reindeer herders’ grazing grounds and transmits electricity to allow more oil to be extracted in the Arctic.

To conclude, it seems that under the Conservatives, Norway will continue to push for oil and gas development while diversifying into other areas in its northern economy like environmental technologies. The Conservatives might claim that local municipalities will gain more say in how northern affairs are conducted. Yet it really appears that the local – whether reindeer herders, fishermen, or residents enjoying their lakeside views – will always lose to fossil fuel interests in Norway. Nowhere is this the case more than in the Lofoten and Vesterålen Islands, as I will explore in my next post.


Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at the University of Hong Kong. Through fieldwork and remote sensing, she researches the politics of infrastructure development in frontier spaces, namely the Arctic and areas included within China's Belt and Road Initiative. Read Mia Bennett's articles

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