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Emissions in Alberta's oil sands (Nathan VanderKlippe)
Emissions in Alberta's oil sands (Nathan VanderKlippe)

Oil sands may feel effect of Norway election Add to ...

The balloting happens in Norway, but the results may be felt in Alberta's oil patch.

Norwegian voters go to the polls Monday and parties with a good shot at governing have said they want the state-owned energy giant StatoilHydro ASA to pull out of Alberta's oil sands.

The company, two-thirds owned by the government of Norway, has invested billions of dollars in the province's northern oil-producing region.

"It's been an issue for political debates and also for the media," said Gunnar Kvassheim of Norway's Liberal party, speaking from Oslo. "It's been one of the environmental issues that have been focused on in this campaign."

In 2007, Statoil paid $2.2-billion for a lease near Fort McMurray, Alta. A project is being built and company officials have said it's about half complete.

But that investment has long been controversial in Norway, which prides itself on environment awareness.

"We want them to close down the business in Canada. It's a very bad environmental project," Mr. Kvassheim said Wednesday.

"We think it's important that Norway and Norwegian companies where the state is the majority owner not work with that product."

Five of Norway's seven political parties say the investment was a mistake. So does the country's largest newspaper.

In an Aug. 30 editorial, Aftenposten wrote that Statoil shouldn't profit from Canada's refusal to meet its promises of greenhouse gas reductions under the Kyoto Protocol. The paper wrote that Statoil and the current government are participating in a "collective denial of responsibility" for oil sands emissions.

"When there is no real international regime to hold Canada accountable, the net result is responsibility pulverization," the paper wrote. "Norway must as a minimum accept to share the blame."

A centre-right coalition ran the government until 2005, but power is currently held by three centre-left parties. The parties of the centre-right coalition all oppose developing the oil sands, said Dagfinn Hoybraaten, leader of the Christian Democrats.

"They're all critical [of]the project and if we are in power after the election this will be an issue in negotiations between the parties as to how to deal with it. We are not at the point where we have had any negotiations on this, [but]I can assure you this will be an issue."

Even the current government's environment minister has spoken out against the oil sands - although he was careful to side with the government when Parliament considered a motion this spring that would have forced its representatives on Statoil's board to vote against the project.

Last Friday, Statoil head Helge Lund felt compelled to defend his company's activities in Alberta.

"Oil sands [are]a young industry which will be continually improved through technology development and increased know-how," he wrote in an Aftenposten op-ed piece. "We believe that we can play a positive role in Canada."

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach said he wasn't aware of the political ado over Statoil's investment in the province.

"I'm not aware of Statoil," he said in Calgary. "All I know is these last couple of weeks there has been just a huge renewed interest [in the oil sands]"

"I believe the world economy is beginning to recover and more and more news coming from large pension fund managers [is]that [they]are looking at Alberta as a great place to invest."

Norway's election, with just a few days of campaigning left, is considered too close to call.

"It's a very open situation," said Mr. Hoybraaten. "It's a close race."

Polls show a dead heat between the two coalitions. Aftenposten analysts have written that a centre-right coalition is one of the most likely scenarios.

If that happens, Statoil could soon be getting directions from its political masters.

"It's not common Norwegian policy to interfere with their companies' business decisions," Mr. Hoybraaten said. "But in our view, this is more than a regular business issue."

"It's an overall ethical issue."

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