The government is due to decide before Christmas whether to permit new oil and gas exploration off the jagged snow-capped Lofoten islands, one of the nation\'s top tourist draws, in a test of environmental risks in the fragile Arctic.
\"We need new areas,\" said Eivind Reiten, the chief executive of Norsk Hydro, Norway\'s number two oil producer behind Statoil. \"The industry has said that we will accept the world\'s strictest environmental and safety demands.\"
But environmental groups including the WWF say Lofoten, just inside the Arctic Circle, is a \"natural paradise\" with the world\'s biggest stocks of cod and herring and the biggest cold-water coral reef. Lofoten is home to puffin and cormorant colonies.
\"WWF wants the seas surrounding the Lofoten islands safeguarded for the future,\" WWF Norway chief Rasmus Hansson said.
The conflict echoes disputes in the United States over President Bush\'s plan to open swathes of Alaska to oil and gas drilling. Russia is also planning more gas and oil exploitation in the Arctic, but with less controversy.
In Norway, the dispute pits the nation\'s biggest business - oil and gas - against fisheries, the second largest, and a powerful environmental lobby favoring a break with fossil fuels widely blamed for global warming.
Oil companies say they need to explore toward the North Pole because finds further south that have made Norway one of the world\'s richest nations are drying up.
And the industry says it has one of the world\'s best safety records with no big accidents in two decades. But a 1977 blow out spewed 12,700 cubic yards of oil at the Ekofisk field. In 1980, 123 people died when a floating hotel for oil workers capsized.
Opponents of Arctic drilling, including bishops of Norway\'s Lutheran state church, say using existing technology brings unacceptable risks of spills. One local mayor retorted that they should stick to religion.
Jostein Gaarder, author of the 1990s bestseller \"Sophie\'s World\" which is a teen-agers\' guide to philosophy, denounced oil plans by adapting ideas from German philosopher Immanuel Kant that every act should lay down a moral principle.
\"It\'s doubtful whether Kant would have accepted that it was ethical for us to use up our non-renewable energy resources within two generations,\" Gaarder wrote. \"If I were born in 50 or 500 years, what would I have wanted?\"
A round of drilling awards due by Christmas includes possible blocks off Lofoten in an area called Nordland VI.
Norway\'s center-right government will also have to decide whether to lift a 2001 moratorium on drilling to the north in the Barents Sea, where the only major project is Statoil\'s Snoehvit (Snow White) gas field, due to come on stream in 2006.
\"That\'s the challenge - to find a solution that will balance the different interests of environment, fisheries and for new acreage for the industry,\" Oil and Energy Minister Einar Steensnaes told Reuters.
NRK public radio has speculated that the government will bar oil and gas activity off Lofoten but allow it further north. An opposition-led majority in parliament favors renewing oil and gas exploration in the Arctic.
The country\'s biggest-selling newspaper, Verdens Gang, said Norway should open northern areas partly to ensure that Norwegian firms will gain expertise to aid neighboring Russia in coming decades.
\"The environmental risks off Lofoten and the Barents Sea are no bigger than those we have accepted for 30 years in the North Sea,\" it said in an editorial.
Environmentalists argue that cold slows oil from breaking up and that Arctic wildlife is part of a more fragile ecosystem . They say damage to plants and animals from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska was magnified by cold.
Among projects in Russia, Gazprom, the world\'s biggest gas company, wants to develop the remote, giant Shtokman field in the Barents Sea, one of the world\'s biggest fields.
Grigory Pasko, a campaigning journalist who was jailed on espionage charges after uncovering Russian navy pollution of the oceans, noted there was little public controversy about Arctic oil and gas which would bring big earnings to Russia.
\"Russians do not particularly want to make much noise about this,\" he said. \"The TV and press are dependent on the authorities, except for one or two small exceptions, and they are encouraged not to write about ecological issues.\"