Several state politicians have fired back at 200 artists, researchers, authors and other members of Norway’s cultural elite, who have called for a halt to more oil exploration in the Arctic. The politicians suggest the oil critics are biting the hand that feeds them.
“There are few sectors in Norway that have been so well-oiled by the oil industry than the cultural sector,” claimed Øyvind Korsberg of the Progress Party, a Member of Parliament and deputy leader of its committee on business and industry. “I support cultural expenditure, but it is extremely unreasonable that 200 self-proclaimed cultural personalities attack something that has built up the nation and is the reason for the high level of welfare we have in Norway.”
Korsberg reacted angrily to a petition published in newspaper Dagsavisen on Monday that called on Norway’s government to cancel the state’s current round of licensing for exploration rights on new oil and gas fields in the Norwegian and Barents seas. Never before has Norway approved the prospect of oil drilling so far north, at a time when the government also claims to be concerned about carbon emissions and their links to climate change. While the government promises to cut Norway’s own emissions, it’s been moving forward on controversial new ventures that critics note are bound to create more.
The 200 people signing the petition, mostly from academia and the arts, included many Norwegian celebrities such as artist Håkon Bleken, authors Jostein Gaarder and Karl Ove Knausgård and the former head of Norway’s National Theater and culture minister for a Labour Party government, Ellen Horn. Many have arguably benefited during the course of their education and careers from state funding, so Korsberg and several others think it’s hypocritical for them to now call for a halt to oil drilling. The petitioners also threatened to sue the state if the government moves forward with its current oil field licensing round.
“I don’t think they understand what oil has meant for Norway,” Korsberg told Dagsavisen. “This isn’t just about revenues for the state treasury, but also employment. The oil industry creates more than 100,000 jobs around the country. In reality, this attack on oil is an attack on everyone who works in the petroleum sector.”
Ib Thomsen, cultural policy spokesman for the Progress Party, which shares government power with the Conservatives, agreed. “In Europe, we see that the first sector to be hit by cuts in times of crisis in the cultural sector,” Thomsen told Dagsavisen. “Representatives of the cultural sector here in Norway should pay attention to that. I thought perhaps they had, but it’s not always easy.”
Thomsen recently returned from Svalbard, where the entire population on the Arctic archipelago relies on revenues from its controversial coal mining operations that the government continues to support. Now he’s in Rogaland County on Norway’s west coast, the traditional heart of Norway’s oil and offshore industry that also is feeling harder times because of the sudden decline in oil prices.
“Both Svalbard and Rogaland are very vulnerable,” Thomsen said. “If people look beyond Oslo and Kunstnernes Hus (literally, the Artists’ House exhibition and meeting place in Oslo), they might discover that.”
The clash between the cultural elite and the government illustrates yet again the paradox Norway faces, as a country keen on being socially progressive and environmentally conscious but which also has built up a major oil and gas industry over the last 50 years. Hege Ulstein, a commentator in Dagsavisen, wrote on Tuesday that “we’re never going to be able” to reconcile being environmentally and economically responsible “if we don’t speak honestly abut Norway’s special role as a major producer of fossil fuel.” She noted that government leaders on both ends of the political spectrum have been too reluctant to “think new” about Norway as an oil and gas nation.
Ulstein lauded the current government’s goal of “readjusting” Norway’s economy and diversifying away from oil and gas, but called it “empty talk” if the Conservatives-led government, like the Labour-led government before it, “fails to recognize the consequences of its own rhetoric. We must dare to talk about what we’ll be adjusting away from, not just what we’ll adjust to.”