Australia is known for its famed Opera House in Sydney, so perhaps it was only natural for Australians angry with Norway’s state oil company Equinor to mount a protest with Oslo’s own Opera House in the background. Hundreds of demonstrators swam and paddled in the Oslo Fjord on Sunday to demonstrate against the Norwegian oil company’s plans to drill for oil in treacherous waters full of marine life known as the Great Australian Bight.
Their protest was so unusual, and creative, that it was among stories topping Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) national nightly newscast on Sunday. It’s not often that demonstrators from another, normally friendly, country travel literally from the other end of the globe to make their objections to a Norwegian operation known.
“Fight for the Bight! Fight for the Bight,” they shouted from colourful kayaks and surfboards. Wearing wetsuits, many dove into the chilly fjord in yet another effort to halt Equinor’s highly controversial oil exploration project.
They wanted to make sure more Norwegians are aware of what their state-owned company is doing in their part of the world, not least since Equinor (formerly known as Statoil) remains 67 percent-owned by the Norwegian state. They succeeded, at least, in attracting attention, with many Norwegian media outlets reporting on their demonstration both Sunday evening and Monday.
Peter Owen, leader of The Wilderness Society in Australia, likened Equinor’s plans to what it would be like if an Australia company came and started drilling off Lofoten. Environmental organizations, the fishing industry and local communities in and around Lofoten have so far succeeded in forcing politicians to withdraw support for such controversial drilling in a scenic area and waters rich in seafood. Equinor has wanted to drill there, too, but has been stymied by all the public protests.
There was also a lot of opposition when Equinor, before it removed both “state” and “oil” in its name, invested in equally controversial oil/tar sands operations in Alberta, Canada. Equinor has since pulled out of the high carbon-generating oil sands, and now demonstrators are relentlessly calling on the company to pull out of both the Australian Bight and the Arctic.
Owen and others stress that the Bight, not unlike the Arctic, is a highly vulnerable area, with rough seas and tides that are home to several marine species not found anywhere else in the world. “If something goes wrong (during offshore drilling operations), it would be catastrophic,” Owen told NRK. “We want the Norwegian people to put pressure on Equinor so that they’ll pull out.”
Other international oil companies already have pulled out, including Chevron, Exxon and BP. Equinor maintains that its 50 years of experience in the rough waters of the North Sea make it well-positioned to succeed at offshore drilling in the Bight where others have failed.
Equinor also stresses that it has been granted licenses from the Australian government, which, it notes, is supposed to represent a majority in Australia. Equinor received two exploration licenses in 2017, has invested heavily in the project and still seems determined to carry it out despite all the public protests.
Equinor also claims that it has delivered an evironmental plan that shows how it can carry out the drilling with low carbon emissions. Jone Stangeland, chief of Australian operations for Equinor, defended the company’s plans once again in response to Sunday’s protest in Oslo’s own waters.
“We have delivered an environmental plan that the authorities will now handle, and we’re moving forward with our plans to start drilling at the end of 2020,” Stangeland told NRK. An Equinor spokesman said that despite all the protests from the surfing and environmental organizations, the company has support from Australian officials who welcome the project because of the jobs and economic growth it can create.
“We have the impression we have broad political support for our plans at both the state and federal level,” Equinor spokesman Erik Haaland wrote in an email to Norwegian news bureau NTB. “It’s the Australian authorities who have opened up this area for petroleum operations and issued licenses to, among others, Equinor. The Great Australian Bight has also been part of recent license rounds in Australia.”
Norway’s international reputation, however, is also at stake at a time when the country already is under criticism over its ongoing oil exploration and production in the Arctic. Crown Prince Haakon was met by a protest while on an official visit to several South Pacific island nations that are threatened by the climate change resulting from the oil industry’s carbon emissions. His parents, King Harald and Queen Sonja, were also confronted by demonstrations while on a state visit to Chile, over equally controversial salmon farming operations backed by Norwegian companies.