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23rd Mar 2019

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After the oil: Norway seeks new fortunes at sea

Norway is aware that its oil, a font of wealth and prosperity for decades, will not last forever. They are looking for a new bounty in the seas to the north, where climate change is making resources ever easier to reach.

Some 2,000 officials, scientists and business leaders gathered at the annual Arctic Frontiers conference in the northern city of Tromsoe this week to hear how a new Norwegian oceans strategy, to be launched later this year, will pave the way.

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"We have so far only utilised a fraction of the blue economy," conservative foreign minister Boerge Brende told EUobserver.

"The new maritime strategy will look at new opportunities for growth from the sea. The economy in our Arctic regions is already growing faster than the economy in the rest of Norway."

Brende, a former director with the World Economic Forum, pointed out that Norway had built up an "aqua-culture" in the past three decades, making farmed fish the country's largest export after oil and gas.

Fisheries minister Per Sandberg told the conference that much of the sea remained unexplored, suggesting the oceans could provide untapped resources of food, energy and medicine for the world's growing population.

"Today, only five percent of the world's food comes from the seas," he said.

"We now know that food from the sea is more climate-friendly food compared to meat, so it's no wonder that a better use of the seas forms part of the UN's goals for sustainable development."

Sturla Henriksen, CEO of the Norwegian Shipowners Association, explained that there were huge metal and mineral deposits under the seabed in the Arctic and on land throughout the region.

"When the ice melts in the ocean, these resources at sea become more accessible, and when the permafrost disappears from the land, the land-based infrastructure - roads, railways - will be less reliable, so you need to sail," he said.

"The climate makes the major rivers of the Russian Arctic - Ob, Yenisei, Lena - more open to maritime traffic. Also, we expect more freight traffic between Asia and Europe on the Arctic waterways."

"Some 90 percent of world trade is still done at sea, and you save one-third of the voyage by sailing north of Russia instead of sailing through the Suez."

Offshore responsibility

Norway's management of fisheries and oil has fostered a measure of trust in Norway’s ability to chase the new wealth offshore responsibly.

Since 1975, Norway and Russia have jointly fostered sustainable fishing in the Barents Sea, and the oil and gas industry in Norway is known as the strictest regulated worldwide.

Head of the Arctic states’ Senior Arctic Officials US ambassador David Balton told EUobserver: "If anyone can do it safely, then it must be Norwegians."

Norwegian officials eagerly nurture this reputation. They highlight, for instance, Norway’s oil and gas as a stable source of energy for the rest of Europe - particularly in times of trouble.

Yet professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in the US, claims that Norway’s continued hunt for oil in the Arctic will be both a waste of money and devastating for the planet, his words falling on deaf ears from Norway’s prime minister Erna Solberg.

She denies that Norway would serve the climate better by leaving the oil where it is.

Instead, she said that Norway's superior technology means harmful emissions from oil and gas extraction in Norway are significantly lower than emissions from similar processes in places like Saudi Arabia.

Martin Breum is a Danish journalist specialising in Arctic affairs

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