Norway faces down Russia and environmentalists in race for Arctic

Much of Oslo’s posturing is a response to a series of power plays by Moscow

A reindeer grazing in the snow as a Norwegian patrol ship passes behind south of Tromso, Norway. Photograph: Stephen Starr

A reindeer grazing in the snow as a Norwegian patrol ship passes behind south of Tromso, Norway. Photograph: Stephen Starr

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In the port of Tromso, one of the northernmost cities in the world and Atlantic gateway to the Arctic, patrol vessels are on the move. When one ship leaves port in front of the Radisson Blu hotel, another, sailing in from the south, is soon on hand to take its place.

Although these naval ships are chiefly deployed for fishery inspections and search-and-rescue, they are a window into how Norway is embarking on major efforts to secure its Arctic defence and resource interests in the face of growing Russian manoeuvring, and opposition from environmental groups.

Norway shares a 195km land border with Russia and a lengthy maritime boundary that stretches north, dissecting the Barents Sea. Oslo claims that close bilateral relations with Moscow have been and continue to be “vital”. But recent Norwegian government activity fuelled, in part, by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, suggests it is asserting itself in its relations with its much larger neighbour.

Last year, Norway bought five Poseidon surveillance aircraft at a cost of €1.1 billion to be deployed in regions of the Arctic Sea where Russian submarines have become increasingly active. In October, its outgoing defence minister, Ine Eriksen Soreide, announced a €320 million increase in military spending, much of which is to be focused on the north. “This shows will and ability to defend ourselves in the north, and it is a deterrent,” Soreide said.

War games

Much of Norway’s posturing is a response to a series of Russian power plays. Moscow is in the midst of its biggest push for Arctic dominance since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and is an increasingly visible presence in the Barents and Arctic Seas. Since 2013, it has tripled the amount of time its warships spend in Arctic waters. Last May, Russian authorities chose the Barents Sea to host a major naval exercise marking Victory Day, and extensive nuclear war games were conducted across the Arctic last month.

Add to that allegations that Moscow helped refugees illegally cross into Norway from the Arctic border region in 2015-16, and a big-budget Norwegian TV show that depicts Russia as occupying Norway (which drew the ire of the Russian embassy in Oslo), and it’s not difficult to see why tensions are high.

Occupying the mass of water between Russia, northern Norway and the Arctic Ocean, the Barents Sea is set to become a new ground zero for energy exploration

In June, the Russian embassy told Reuters that extending the deployment of 300 US soldiers in Arctic Norway until the end of 2018 – the first in the country since the second World War – showed that Norway was a “not fully predictable partner” and could also “escalate tension and lead to destabilisation of the situation in the northern region”.

But Oslo’s attempts to position itself as a dominant force in the Arctic region is not centred on curbing Russia alone. Massive undersea reserves of oil and gas are a major motivation.

Occupying the mass of water between Russia, northern Norway and the Arctic Ocean, the Barents Sea is set to become a new ground zero for energy exploration. In April, Norway doubled its oil reserves estimate there to 17.6 billion barrels. Less than two months later, it opened 93 blocks for exploration in the Barents Sea.

And with the state-owned energy giant Statoil more active in the Arctic last summer than ever before, climate activists have taken out a lawsuit against the Norwegian government for violating the constitution by, they say, “endangering citizens’ rights to a healthy environment”, and potentially breaching the Paris climate accord.

Drilling

“The particular risks of drilling in the Barents Sea include difficulties with operating in a harsh environment where icing, darkness and long distances create additional risks for accidents,” says Truls Gulowsen, the head of Greenpeace Norway. “We’re afraid the energy companies will do what they can to cut costs and cut corners.”

Martine Myrvang (15) is a member of the Nature and Youth group, a 50-year-old environmental protection body with a membership of about 7,000 young people that is behind the lawsuit with Greenpeace and other organisations. She says that locals in Tromso are split over further exploration of the pristine northern waters. Criticising an industry that has made Norway one of the wealthiest and happiest countries in the world is not always a popular move.

“Some of my friends say they just don’t care or ‘it’s not my business’. Young people are not too much focused on environmental and climate issues,” she says a a cafe in downtown Tromso. “But the fishing and tourism industries are growing in the north – we don’t need more drilling. And it’s not good for the world.”

Some argue that because the cost of extracting oil in the Arctic has fallen by 55 per cent for some companies, Norway is better off doubling down. Crude oil and gas account for almost half of Norway’s exports, and have shaped the country’s economy and world-leading standard of living for decades. For others, however, more exploration makes little sense.

“This [opening of exploration licences] is happening at a time when there are more fossil fuels than we need,” says Greenpeace’s Gulowsen. “It’s a big step in the wrong direction.”

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