Politicking delayed Mongstad retreat

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Oil & Energy Minister Ola Borten Moe of the Center Party reportedly decided as early as last spring that the government needed to cut its losses and drop its full-scale carbon capture plans at the Mongstad refinery and power plant on Norway’s west coast. That set off a quarrel among the government coalition parties, though, and the announcement regarding the failure at Mongstad didn’t come until after the election.

Outgoing Oil & Energy Minister Ola Borten reportedly wanted to give up expensive and prestigious plans for full-scale carbon capture at Norway's Mongstad plant long before the project was officially shelved late last week, after the September 9 election. PHOTO: Senterpartiet

Outgoing Oil & Energy Minister Ola Borten reportedly wanted to give up expensive and prestigious plans for full-scale carbon capture at Norway’s Mongstad plant long before the project was officially shelved late last week, after the September 9 election. PHOTO: Senterpartiet

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported on Tuesday that Moe wanted to shut down the government’s prestigious project, which had been referred to by Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg of the Labour Party as the equivalent of a “moon landing” for Norway, because its costs kept escalating with no concrete results in sight. A professional decision on a shutdown had already been made in line with negotiations on a revised state budget last spring, reported DN.

The Socialist Left party (SV), however, demanded an environmental alternative to Mongstad to help save its own prospects in the voting booth. SV, already lagging in the polls because of its perceived compromises on other environmental policies, needed an alternative that arguably could offer a reduction in carbon emissions equivalent to the Mongstad plan. None was forthcoming, however, and the announcement that the government was giving up its plans for full-scale carbon capture came after the election, along with promises that research would continue and, later, that there were some prospects for carbon capture elsewhere, possibly at a gas plant in Skien.

Bård Vegar Solhjell, outgoing environmental minister, reportedly didn't want any announcement on Mongstad's fate until an alternative carbon capture plan was in place. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Bård Vegar Solhjell, outgoing environmental minister, reportedly didn’t want any announcement on Mongstad’s fate until an alternative carbon capture plan was in place. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

SV only won 4.1 percent of the vote in the election, barely enough to secure representation in parliament. Questions are being raised by opposition politicians, including the Progress Party, as to whether SV would have lost representation if the Mongstad announcement hadn’t been delayed.

Environmental activists also have questioned the timing of the announcement last Friday afternoon, and have criticized the outgoing government and especially SV that the truth about carbon capture at Mongstad didn’t come out during the election campaign.

Both Moe and Bård Vegar Solhjell, the outgoing minister for environmental protection from SV, have insisted a final decision on Mongstad was made only recently. State Secretary Hans Kristian Amundsen in the Office of the Prime Minister flatly denied that political tactics were involved in the timing of the announcement. “An overall solution for Mongstad, which includes phasing out the full-scale carbon capture and offsetting measures, wasn’t clear for the government until the final phases of work on next year’s state budget,” Amundsen told news bureau NTB on Tuesday.

DN reported that Moe, though, had repeatedly questioned the viability of the carbon capture plans at Mongstad since he took over as oil minister in 2011. The government has spent more than NOK 7 billion on the failed effort, and Moe reportedly wanted to cut losses much earlier. “There has been so much prestige tied to the project though,” DN quoted one government source as saying. It wasn’t easy for either Stoltenberg or SV to give it up and essentially admit defeat.

The failure at Mongstad has sparked disappointment internationally, with the United Nations’ climate chief saying she expects Norway to continue efforts at carbon capture, also at Mongstad. “I expect that Norway will continue to invest in technology and development to get the costs (of carbon capture) down,” Christiana Figueres of the UN told DN in New York, where world leaders were gathering this week for the UN General Assembly.

Trine Skei Grande, leader of Norway’s Liberal Party (Venstre) that boasts an ambitious environmental platform, has called for an international investigation into how the outgoing left-center government has handled the Mongstad project. Grande, currently part of negotiations to form a new Conservatives-led government coalition, hasn’t received much support for a probe, though. Neither the Conservatives nor the Progress Party back an investigation into the expenditures, the organization and state oil company Statoil’s role in the project, at least not now.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund