Norway's Arctic archipelago Lofoten is a potential drilling site. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The sale of oil and gas has been highly lucrative for Norway - but should it continue?

The Scandinavian giant has kept itself afloat amid economic turbulence with a steady flow of natural resources - but is this nature-loving nation prepared to promote growth at all costs?

The recent Norwegian elections have taken the country in a conservative direction. While talk of cost cutting, limits to immigration and religious education reform are at the forefront of the political discourse, the national energy debate is proving problematic for the new coalition government. Reconciling Norway’s all-encompassing apprecation of the natural world with the desire to export gas and oil supplies is proving difficult, forcing the parties to ask themselves which matters more: growth or the environment?

The new blue-blue coalition government, elected this September, has already begun a reversal of some key Norwegian ideologies, turning to privatisations, tax breaks and welfare cuts. The coalition, made up of the Conservative Party (Høyre) and the far-right, anti-immigration (ironically named) Progression Party (Fremskrittspartiet), came to power following the previous Labour government’s nine-year term. Most attributed the change to an overwhelming apathy towards the inclumbent government: they hadn’t done anything wrong, they’d just been there for a while. Although Norway managed to dodge the recession with the help of huge oil and gas reserves (and high taxes), the shift in attitude seemed to mimic corresponding shifts across Europe: fear of potential economic downfall resulting in an abrupt reversion to right-wing policy.

Norway’s attitude to nature is deeply entrenched. Even in the capital city, Oslo, access to nature is easy and encouraged. Lakes, mountains and ski resorts are close by and can be reached by train. Buildings can only be built to a certain height, to avoid overdevelopment. Recycling is strictly enforced, even in student housing and in the most built-up areas. Norway continues to be hugely under-populated, boasting large unspoilt landscapes. To be solitary seems to be an essential tenet of Norwegian life, and to be solitary in nature is the epitome of this.

Norway’s ability to maintain its sparsely populated city and untouched natural resources has been largely due to its huge North Sea oil and gas reserves. In 2011, Norway was the 8th largest exporter of oil in the world, as well as the 2nd largest exporter of gas, maintaining its status as the 4th richest country (per capita) in the word, according to the International Monetary Fund. At the same time, Norway aspires to commit to renewable energy, though this ambition is proving difficult. The country's primary energy source is hydroelectric power (95 per cent, in fact). Norway is ranked 30th in the 2008 list of countries by carbon dioxide emissions per capita, and has yet to achieve its ambition of cutting its emissions by 30 per cent.

Norway faces a dilemma when it comes to energy. It’s exportation of oil and gas causes a huge number of carbon emissions, almost 500 million tonnes. For a country that is in no way struggling financially, even compared to its western neighbours, the government still wants to increase exports of these natural goods - increasing its carbon footprint. The current blue-blue government coalition is desperate to drill for oil in areas of northern Norway such as Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja, but have had to make a deal with the minor parties on the right side not to explore these areas in order to gain a majority. The areas are both very beautiful, and extremely vulnerable, due to the narrowness of the fjords and the harsh climate in those areas, meaning that the risk is higher than drilling in open sea. The potential damage is devastating.

The sale of oil and gas has been wildly lucrative for Norway. A recent article in Aftenposten reported that the “net present value of revenues” from oil and gas in Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja would be 1,925 billion Kroner (about 188 billion British Pounds). If there’s anything that’s going to convince you to destroy some natural habitat, 188 billion pounds is probably it.

It’s clear to see why the government is so keen to drill, but the Norwegian attitude to nature coupled with the smaller parties’ commitment to the environment might delay excavation. It appears that for the next four years, the ecological moral values of most Norwegian citizens, as well as the fjords, will remain untouched. 

Photo: Getty Images
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Britain's shrinking democracy

10 million people - more than voted for Labour in May - will be excluded from the new electoral roll.

Despite all the warnings the government is determined to press ahead with its decision to close the existing electoral roll on December 1. This red letter day in British politics is no cause for celebration. As the Smith Institute’s latest report on the switch to the new system of voter registration shows, we are about to dramatically shrink our democracy.  As many as 10 million people are likely to vanish from the electoral register for ever – equal to 20 per cent of the total electorate and greater than Labour’s entire vote in the 2015 general election. 

Anyone who has not transferred over to the new individual electoral registration system by next Tuesday will be “dropped off” the register. The independent Electoral Commission, mindful of how the loss of voters will play out in forthcoming elections, say they need at least another year to ensure the new accuracy and completeness of the registers.

Nearly half a million voters (mostly the young and those in private rented homes) will disappear from the London register. According to a recent HeraldScotland survey around 100,000 residents in Glasgow may also be left off the new system. The picture is likely to be much the same in other cities, especially in places where there’s greater mobility and concentrations of students.

These depleted registers across the UK will impact more on marginal Labour seats, especially  where turnout is already low. Conversely, they will benefit Tories in future local, Euro and general elections. As the Smith Institute report observers, Conservative voters tend to be older, home owners and less transient – and therefore more likely to appear on the electoral register.

The government continues to ignore the prospect of skewed election results owing to an incomplete electoral registers. The attitude of some Tory MPs hardly helping. For example, Eleanor Laing MP (the former shadow minister for justice) told the BBC that “if a young person cannot organize the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they don’t deserve the right to vote”.  Leaving aside such glib remarks, what we do know is the new registers will tend to favour MPs whose support is found in more affluent rural and semi-rural areas which have stable populations.  

Even more worrying, the forthcoming changes to MPs constituencies (under the Boundary Review) will be based on the new electoral register. The new parliamentary constituencies will be based not on the voting population, but on an inaccurate and incomplete register. As Institute’s report argues, these changes are likely to unjustly benefit UKIP and the Conservative party.

That’s not to say that the voter registration system doesn’t need reforming.  It clearly does. Indeed, every evidence-based analysis of electoral registers over the last 20 years shows that both accuracy and completeness are declining – the two features of any electoral register that make it credible or not. But, the job must be done properly.  Casually leaving 10m voters off the electoral resister hardly suggests every effort has been made.

The legitimacy of our democratic system rests on ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. This is a task which shouldn’t brook complacency or compromise.  We should be aiming for maximum voter registration, not settling for a system where one in five drop off the register.