OSLO An industry-backed survey published on Thursday shows most Norwegians favor an impact study that could pave the way to open a pristine, fish-rich Arctic area to oil activities and prolong Norway's energy boom.
The oil industry says the waters near the Lofoten and Vesteraalen islands in the Arctic now have the most prospects off Norway and must be tapped to prolong the North Sea state's oil bonanza as output from mature oilfields declines.
Environmentalists say that any spill in the unspoiled region would be disastrous for its diverse eco-system, which includes unique cold water reefs, pods of sperm whales and killer whales, some of the largest seabird colonies in Europe as well as being the spawning grounds of the largest cod stock in the world.
A number of opinion polls over past months suggest that Norwegians are split nearly down the middle on Arctic drilling and the issue was a major theme in last year's general election.
The survey by pollster Synovate, carried out for the oil industry lobby group OLF, shows that seven out of 10 Norwegians want the authorities to conduct an impact study of how oil and gas exploration would affect the Lofoten region.
"For us, this is a confirmation of our position that the impact assessment is reasonable," OLF chief Gro Braekken said in a statement publishing the results of the survey.
Two small parties in the government -- the Socialist Left and the Center Party -- are against drilling, but the main Labour Party has not yet made up its mind.
Labour awaits the results of seismic scans of the region which indicate the potential size of oil and gas resources to be found. Norway's main trade union LO, Labour's traditional ally, backs the project, saying it could create jobs.
The government is expected make a decision on drilling off the Lofoten and Vesteraalen islands in 2010, although it has vowed not to open up the area until at least 2013.
OIL RICHES VS ENVIRONMENTAL RISKS
Environmentalists said the survey is part of the oil industry's campaign to win over the divided public.
"The survey does not ask the real questions: should drilling happen if all the competent Norwegian scientific bodies advise against it? And is an impact assessment needed when all these scientific bodies already advise against drilling there?" WWF Norway chief Rasmus Hansson told Reuters.
The survey also showed that eight out of 10 Norwegians believe the oil and gas industry will have great significance for development in northern Norway, which has large fishing and tourism sectors.
The survey, conducted on December 1-11 on a representative sample of 1,307 adult Norwegians, shows that 85 percent of the population have a very good or fairly good impression of the oil and gas industry. Almost as many believe the industry has given Norwegians increased standard of living.
Norway invests most of its oil and gas revenues in an offshore wealth fund, which has grown to around $450 billion.
The funds are earmarked for pension payouts when oil and gas production winds down, giving Norwegians security about their future welfare and a tangible benefit from oil exploration.
The oil and gas sector accounts for about a quarter of Norway's GDP, a third of government revenues and half of the affluent Nordic country's exports.
Norway's oil output has dipped to 2 million barrels a day from highs around 3.5 million early last decade, but gas output has risen. Present forecasts show production tapering off slowly over the next decades unless major new resources are tapped.
Exploration drilling in past years has not proven any "elephant sized" fields off Norway, although a number of interesting finds were proven near existing North Sea platforms, which may make developments cheaper and easier to bring on line.
(Editing by Anthony Barker)