“This is crazy!” exclaimed the leader of Norway’s Natur og Ungdom (Nature and Youth) environmental organization on Wednesday, after the Norwegian government forged ahead with plans to open up more of the Arctic than ever before to oil exploration and production. Of the 102 new exploration areas to be offered next spring, 93 lie in the Barents Sea and nine in the Norwegian Sea.
Oil Minister Terje Søviknes of the conservative Progress Party is every bit as bullish on oil as his predecessors have been from both the right and left sides of Norwegian politics. The former Labour-led coalition government also was keen to develop new oil fields because of the jobs they create and the money they pumps into the national treasury.
“New exploration areas are critical for long-term activity, value creation and profitable employment in the petroleum business nationwide,” Søviknes claimed. He stressed that the government intended to conduct an “active policy” of issuing exploration licenses to players in the petroleum industry,
Nearly half of the blocs offered in the Barents Sea are located north of Norway’s most northerly discovery so far, called Wisting. Five of the exploration blocs extend as close as possible to the 65-kilometer-wide belt around the Arctic island of Bjørnøya, known for its seabird colonies and where petroleum activity is not allowed.
‘Ignoring all professional warnings’
Those battling to protect the environment and reverse climate change were not at all happy on Wednesday, and demanded once again that oil and gas believed to be lying below the seabed remain there. “More oil drilling in the Arctic is not compatible with climate goals reached in Paris,” exclaimed an upset Ingrid Skjoldvær, leader of Natur og Ungdom. “This is crazy! Terje Søviknes is stepping on the gas for drilling in untouched areas of the Arctic, and doesn’t care at all about the future for us who are young today.”
Silje Ask Lundberg, leader of Norway’s chapter of Friends of the Earth (Naturvernforbundet), was also furious. She was especially upset that the Norwegian government will allow drilling in some of the “most vulnerable seas we have,” going on to note the conflicting roles Norway has as both an oil producing nation that tries to promote an environmentally conscious image.
“The government talks about a green shift, but drowns the Paris Agreement in oil,” Lundberg told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “The future will judge the government’s oil policies hard.”
Lundberg’s predecessor who’s now running for a seat in Parliament for the Socialist Left party (SV), Lars Haltbrekken, told NRK that the government is ignoring all professional warnings against oil drilling in sensitive areas. The state fisheries directorate also warned against seismic operations in 16 of the exploration blocs on offer. Norway’s own environmental directorate also warned against offering 20 blocs that now are drawn up around Bjørnøya. Norway’s Polar Institute also warned against oil industry activity in 28 of the blocs to be offered.
Oil industry officials, however, were extremely pleased by the government’s expansion announcement, not least Karl-Eirik Schjøtt-Pedersen. He’s a former top politician for the Labour Party who now heads Norway’s largest petroleum lobbying group, and claims it’s fully possible to carry out both oil exploration and production in harmony with other industries like the important seafood industry.
“It’s extremely important for Noway that new exploration areas for oil and gas are handed out,” Schjøtt-Pedersen said. “This will let Norway maintain its production of oil and gas for the world. New discoveries yield enormous value for Norwegian society.”
Ensuring revenues for the welfare state
And that’s the crux of the issue, money to fuel state coffers. Just days after another Norwegian minister announced strict new proposals to curb Norway’s carbon emissions within the non-oil sectors, and in the same week that Norway has been hosting a meeting to further preserve rainforests, curbing its most polluting industry is not up for dscussion among government leaders.
“Petroleum is, after all, the sector that emits the most carbon in Norway,” Anne Karin Sæther, author of the Norwegian book that roughly translates to The Best Intentions: The Oil Nation in the Climate Fight, wrote in newspaper Dagsavisen on Wednesday. “If Norwegian politicians are really so concerned about reducing carbon emissions, why don’t they make any cuts in future oil production?”
The “brutal answer,” Sæther wrote, is that Norwegian politicians are “shielding oil and gas operations because they make so much money off it. They don’t want to say that out loud, though.” She argued that for Norway, it’s cheaper to simply pay for its own carbon emissions (through quotas or its funding of rainforest preservation, for example) than to cut back on them at home. “That’s why the quota system is such a big part of Norwegian climate policy,” Sæther wrote. “The quota system has given us the possibility to increase oil production, and its emissions, on the Norwegian Continental Shelf.”
Norwegian politicians are also working hard to get the transport, construction, agricultural and other industries to cut back on their emissions instead, Sæther added, along with encouraging use of electric cars and thermal heating, and even discouraging meat consumption. “Then the oil branch can keep expanding and we can keep oil production high,” Sæther wrote, “and talk about it as little as possible.”