Oil minister ridicules Greens

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A remarkable war of words has broken out between Norway’s oil minister from the conservative Progress Party (which logged major losses in recent local elections around the country) and one of the triumphant Greens Party’s most outspoken politicians in Oslo, Lan Marie Nguyen Berg. Oil industry officials have also reacted strongly to Berg’s victory speech Monday night, claiming they are not feeling as threatened as she suggests.

Lan Marie Nguyen Berg of the triumphant Greens party (MDG), delivering her victory speech Monday night. Many have found it provocative, with both oil industry officials and Norway’s oil minister firing back. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

“There are especially two groups who are shivering a bit extra in their trousers tonight,” Berg told her cheering party (Miljøpartiet De Grønne, MDG) after it emerged as one of the big winners in local elections around Norway. In Oslo, MDG doubled its position and has now set its sights on Norway’s parliamentary election in 2021.

“The first (group) is the oil lobby, which sees that the time when it was okay to earn money on destroying our future is over,” Berg declared. “The other comprises outdated politicians who have been cowards for years.” She added that they’ve been “sleeping on the job” over their failure to limit or halt the oil industry’s ongoing expansion.

The Greens have called for a halt to all new oil and gas exploration, not least in sensitive Arctic areas. Berg’s assault on the oil industry could finally be launched from a new position of strength, after the Greens’ won voters away from Norway’s established Labour and Conservative parties, even in cities like Oslo where its anti-driving campaign has made life much more expensive and challenging for everyone with a car.

‘She has no place in Parliament’
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) has reported how Berg’s remarks were not well-received at a major gathering of oil industry investors and officials at the posh Holmenkollen Park Hotel just after the election. While some said they “respected” MDG’s green agenda and approved of many of the environmental measures MDG has introduced in Oslo, “she has no place in the Parliament,” shipping heir and oil investor Brynjulf Skaugen told DN. “Oslo is becoming a fine city, but it stops there.” Skaugen claimed Berg’s pronouncement, which has provoked others outside the “oil lobby” as well, “has destroyed the government platform for 2021.”

Wenche Nistad, chief executive of Norway’s export finance agency GIEK, told DN that she hopes the 32-year-old Berg “learns a bit more about the differences among oil producers in the world.” Nistad repeated long-standing claims that Norwegian oil is produced in a more climate-friendly manner and that gas replaces far more polluting coal as an energy source.

Former oil analyst-turned-investor Ole Petter Kjerkreit said he was among those “respecting” MDG’s views but told DN that “the world can be a bit more complex than what Greens think.” He cited grave consequences for Norway if the Norwegian oil industry is shut down: “They (the Greens) like using others’ money … and it (an oil industry phaseout) would have a drastic effect on employment in Norway.”

‘Political risk is rising’
BW Energy boss Carl K Arnet noted how Norway was a poor country before its offshore oil was discovered in 1969: “Those of us who have lived a bit longer remember a different Norway, but maybe it’s not so easy for young people (to visualize a poor Norway) who haven’t experienced it.”

Another oil investor and funds manager, Morten Astrup, went so far as to suggest that large US oil companies may be selling off their oil interests on the Norwegian Continental Shelf because the “political risk is rising.” Astrup, who often flies his own jet between his work in London and his home in Switzerland, told DN that “it can’t be ruled out” that oil companies choose to produce and invest in other areas where regulatory demands are lower: “And that’s not good for the total environmental account,” said Astrup, who’s also the brother of Norway’s so-called Digitalization Minister Nikolai Astrup of the Conservative Party.

Berg responded to all the criticism and dismissal by saying that it “only confirms my point that the oil industry isn’t keeping up with the times.” She warned how demand for fossil fuels will decline (a prediction repeated by the top oil analyst for the gathering’s host, Oslo securities firm Pareto) “but here in Norway we’re still investing tens of billions of kroner in oil and gas every single year. That can’t continue.” She and her party aren’t advocating an abrupt shutdown of Norwegian oil and gas production but rather a plan to phase it out and use the industry’s expertise to develop more offshore wind energy and other alternative ventures.

Oil & Energy Minister Kjell-Børge Freiberg is one of the oil industry’s biggest backers. He disparaged the Greens and Berg, even though his Progress Party keeps losing voters while MDG keeps gaining. PHOTO:OED

The most vociferous response to Berg’s victory speech on Election Night came from Norway’s government minister in charge of oil and gas, Kjell-Børge Freiberg. He represents the Progress Party, known for its history of skepticism towards climate change. Freiberg was every bit as provocative as Berg, telling DN that there was no reason for anyone to worry “because it’s not the Oslo City Council that decides oil policy, thank goodness.” He attacked Berg for all but dishonouring “the thousands” of people who live in Oslo and work in the petroleum business.

He then invited Berg to his home in Northern Norway and to the offshore Asta Hansteen gas platform where she can meet people “she wants to re-educate for jobs they have not chosen. They don’t deserve to hear that they’re bad for Norway and the world. They deserve praise for the value they create and that coal can be phased out.”

Berg responded that she could certainly have a cup of coffee with Freiberg “but I doubt we’ll agree on oil policy. I’ve been in Lofoten (not far from Freiberg’s home in Vesterålen) and know that a majority there is increasingly opposed to oil and gas production, so Freiberg can set aside his moralizing and condescending tone.”

‘Audacious’
She stressed that she views Norwegian oil and gas workers as being “essential” to a restructuring of Norway’s economy away its reliance on oil and gas. “It’s audacious of Freiberg to claim that I think oil workers are bad for Norway and the world,” she told DN. “On the contrary, they’re among the most competent we have.”

Freiberg, who makes no secret of his bullish attitude towards Norway’s oil industry, went on to note that where he comes from, “the debate isn’t over whether whether we should have a car, it’s over whether we can manage with only two.” He claimed Berg is out of touch with those living “outside Ring 3”  (the local beltway in Oslo), and that those working in the oil and gas industry from north to south “don’t want to be forced to move as climate refugees to Oslo to live a life bicycling to jobs that can’t be found.”

Berg shot back that “tens of thousands” of new jobs can be created in other industries like fishing and alternative energy “and I’m amazed over how little faith Freiberg has in Norwegian workers and Norwegians’ ability to create new ventures. Nine out of 10 jobs today are in other areas than oil.”

Minister blasts Labour, too
Freiberg concluded his assault on the Greens in DN on Friday by claiming he was more “frightened” that the Labour Party’s energy policy spokesman Espen Barth Eide has publicly mentioned the possibility of government cooperation between Labour and the Greens, as have several others. Freiberg noted how there’s “always been broad agreement in Parliament on petroleum policy” and he could “guarantee that we (the current conservative government coalition) won’t budge an inch. It’s in fact possible to have a ambitious climate policy and an offensive petroleum policy.”

“That’s simply not true,” retorted Berg, adding that Norway’s oil policy “is the main reason that Norway steadily has higher carbon emissions than in 1990, in contrast to our neighbouring countries where emissions are going down.”

Eide, meanwhile, claimed Labour “wants to develop the energy sector, not phase it out.” He dismissed Freiberg’s criticism, saying the oil minister “knows very well that Labour has no plans to set a date” for an oil industry shutdown.

“But we must accept that the world will look very different in just a few years,” Eide told DN. “We’re in the middle of an enormous renewable energy revolution where Norway actually has great opportunities.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund