* Norway government seeking to offset production decline
* Draft law to allow drilling in waters vulnerable to ice
* Environmentalists see risks
By Environment Correspondent Alister Doyle
OSLO, June 14 Norway is set to permit offshore
oil and gas exploration in Arctic waters vulnerable to sea ice,
angering some opposition politicians and environmentalists who
say ice sharply raises risks of accidents.
Norway's centre-left government, seeking new resources to
offset a decline in production to a 25-year low, has often said
it will not allow drilling in ice-covered seas. But the exact
definition has been unclear.
A draft law, agreed by parliament's energy and environment
committee this week, will allow drilling in an offshore border
zone with Russia the size of Switzerland, part of which was
covered by sea ice in a chill 2003 winter.
"This is another step towards the North Pole. We should stay
out of these sensitive areas," said Kjell Ingolf Ropstad, of the
opposition Christian Democrats and the only member of the
committee who voted against the plan.
The draft is likely to be adopted by parliament on June 19.
Ropstad told Reuters ice could easily reappear in a freak winter
even though climate change means a long-term thawing trend.
In January, the Norwegian oil safety regulator said that
even fields that are developed in areas that are ice-free have a
statistical risk of a freeze and that oil companies should take
that into account.
The new plan sets a variable limit for drilling in the new
area, saying that oil and gas exploration must be at least 50
kms (35 miles) from the observed edge of the ice, which recedes
towards the pole in summer and expands south in winter.
Ropstad and environmentalists want to ban drilling from any
area that was covered by ice at its maximum winter extent in the
past decade or so to avoid surprises like the chill 2003 winter.
Ice also touched the northern fringe of the new area in 2011.
An official at the Oil and Energy Ministry said that the
rules did not mark a change in policy, merely a clarification.
Environmentalists disagreed, saying a fixed limit had always
been implied, including by past official maps. Foreign Minister
Espen Barth Eide recently said it was "definitely not Norwegian
policy to drill in ice-covered areas."
"This is a break with 40 years of Norwegian oil policy,"
said Nils Harley Boison of the WWF conservation group. He said
that ice was a threat to drilling installations and any spills
on ice were virtually impossible to clean up.
Ice conditions can quickly change and mean that a 50-km
buffer zone is too small, he said.
U.S. estimates show the Arctic may hold 13 percent of the
world's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its gas.
Other members of Norway's energy and environment committee
said that a proper definition of the ice edge would be part of a
wider environmental assessment in 2015.
The Socialist Left Party, a member of the three-party
government that has opposed Arctic drilling, said it agreed to
open the south-east Barents Sea only as part of a government
compromise that kept other areas off limits.
(Editing by Keiron Henderson)