OSLO, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Norway's state church proposed on Tuesday a five-year moratorium on new offshore oil and gas licences for environmental reasons, joining a debate about opening more waters for exploration to sustain oil production.
The moratorium proposal triggered an angry response by Norway's main labour union, LO, which fears that such a move would hurt the offshore services sector and spark mass layoffs at a time when Norway's economy already faces recession.
The proposal comes seven months before a general election whose result may decide if Norway opens more Arctic waters for exploration -- seen by the oil industry as a needed lifeline amidst declining output from aging North Sea fields.
Norway is the world's number four oil exporter and number three in natural gas, but no big new discoveries have been made in years, pressuring the authorities to open large swathes of waters off the Lofoten islands and in the Barents Sea.
"Norway also needs to show restraint. We need to demonstrate that we can use renewable energy," Bishop Tor Joergensen, one of 11 bishops in Norway's Lutheran state church, said after the church published its proposals.
More than 80 percent of Norway's 4.7 million citizens at least nominally belong to the church, headed by Norway's King Harald. It has lost some influence as Norway, like many other West European states, became more secular.
"This is not a wise idea," said LO leader Roar Flaathen. "A stop in new licences on the Norwegian continental shelf would lead to a collapse in the offshore services industry with mass layoffs as a result," he told NRK broadcaster.
The Labour-led government declined to comment on the church proposal. The ruling parties are split on the issue of opening the Lofoten and Barents Sea waters for oil exploration.
Norwegians like to see themselves as environmental activists and contribute billions of dollars each year to "green" energy projects and research, both domestically and around the world.
But Norway's emissions of heat-trapping gasses have risen sharply in past years as its offshore oil and gas industry boomed, raising concern that it was contributing to global warming more than it could offset through foreign aid.
"If Norway is going to work for a more just climate agreement internationally, we cannot at the same time increase emissions from our petroleum industry," the bishop told the VG daily. Expanding offshore acreage now "would be irresponsible towards the world's poor" who suffer most due to global warming. (Additional reporting by Terje Solsvik; Editing by Jon Boyle)
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