Can Europe Make It?

Who drills, wins

When it comes to oil, Norway just can’t help itself.

Seth Piper
18 January 2018

This week, a governing coalition was finally formed in Norway, a full four months after the general election which saw the minority government of Conservatives and populist-right Progress party remain in power. The new coalition platform now includes the Liberal party, Venstre, who have controversially joined forces with the Progress party for the first time, despite repeatedly denying this was a possibility during the election campaign.

Arguably, very little of Norwegian politics has any real international significance, barring a few issues. Two exceptions that come to mind are the potential influence Norway is having on Britain’s post-Brexit options, as well as the way the country manages its gigantic pension fund (the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund). But the most significant area is related to oil and gas activity, since Norway has for many years been among the world’s largest petroleum exporters by volume. Only the gulf states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and U.A.E. are bigger exporters per-capita. A fair amount of the responsibility for the global climate crisis can justifiably be laid at the feet of Norway, which has become one of the world’s richest countries as a direct result.


Norwegian environmental organisation Natur og Ungdom protesting in Paris 2015. Photo by Helene Lind Jensen

Internationally, the political situation related to oil and climate has shifted significantly in the past year. President Macron has proposed an “ecological transition” law, intended to end the granting licences for oil and gas exploration in France. The World Bank has announced that it will “no longer finance upstream oil and gas”. The number of climate lawsuits is growing internationally, and the Norwegian state itself was forced to defend the country’s oil activity in a legal case brought by Greenpeace and local eNGOs.

In this context, it comes as a massive disappointment that the new governing coalition in Norway intends to carry on with aggressively expansive oil policies. The logic seems to be to find and pump up as much oil and gas as possible before it’s too late – in other words, before the world is able to transition away from over-reliance on fossil fuels to meet energy needs. The day after the new coalition platform was formed, 103 new petroleum extraction licence blocks were announced, situated in unexplored parts of the Norwegian and Barents seas in the Arctic north.

The Liberals have been eager to describe themselves as a ‘green’ party, which is very difficult to square with their willingness to support what can only be described as business-as-usual, ‘drill, baby, drill’ policies. As a symbolic gesture, a few of the most vulnerable areas close to the Norwegian coastline will be spared. In a machiavellian masterstroke, successive governments have managed to neutralise opposition to drilling from environmental groups by first throwing into doubt, then protecting, the area around the Lofoten archipelago- but only one parliamentary period at a time. This is despite majority public opposition to drilling in what is arguably one of Norway’s most unique and biologically significant areas. Meanwhile, the overall expansive policies of oil and gas exploration remain effectively unchallenged, because green groups are busy either defending, or celebrating, the protection of Lofoten, which while important, has little significance on a global level in terms of emissions.

There is no doubt among climate scientists that the majority of existing oil and gas reserves must be kept in the ground if we are to avoid devastating global temperature increases. However, the question of which oil will stay unburned and which country will show restraint is very much undecided. International climate agreements generally cover domestic emissions but not those from exports, which leads to a situation where countries such as Norway take advantage by ‘outsourcing’ emissions that they are also at least partially responsible for.

In light of these developments, Norway’s reputation as a responsible environmental role model is totally undeserved. Norwegian leaders should be met with increasing international pressure demanding that they begin to show real restraint when it comes to opening new areas for oil and gas extraction. No other country has amassed the kind of wealth Norway has, yet saying ‘no’ to the oil industry still somehow remains politically impossible.

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