Norway talks to try to avert oil shutdown

Employers and striking unions in Norway will meet on Saturday after the energy industry ordered a lockout next week that threatens to halt output in Western Europe's top oil exporter.

"It's up to the parties to came to an agreement. The parties are meeting tomorrow (Saturday) to try to get a solution on the situation," labour ministry spokesman Oeyvind Myge told AFP.

The lockout was announced almost two weeks into the strike by more than 700 North Sea oil workers over pensions which, according to employers' group OLF, has led to losses worth tens of millions of euros a day.

State-owned energy company Statoil had said the lockout would start Monday at 2200 GMT and "will halt all production" on Norway's continental shelf, where about 50 companies operate, including BP and Royal Dutch Shell.

The lockout would mean 6,515 workers covered by offshore pay agreements would not be permitted to enter their workplaces as of Tuesday, OLF said.

Statoil said it expected a shortfall in production of around 1.2 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, costing 520 million kroner (69.3 million euros) per day.

Unions launched the strike on June 24.

The dispute centres on employers cutting a pension add-on introduced in 1998 for workers who retire at 62, three years ahead of the general age for oil workers and five years ahead of Norway's official retirement age.

The unions have branded the lockout "cowardly" and insisted their demands are legitimate.

Norway is the world's eighth largest oil exporter and second largest gas exporter. In 2004, the last strike of oil workers in Norway lasted one week.

Despite Norway's troubles, oil prices slid Friday, with Brent North Sea crude diving below $100 as global economic worries were rekindled following interest rate cuts by central banks in Europe and China, analysts said.

Brent crude for delivery in August dropped $1.56 to $99.14 a barrel in London. New York's main contract, light sweet crude for August lost $1.45 to stand at $85.77 a barrel.

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