NEWS ANALYSIS: The Norwegian government worked hard this week to put the best possible spin on its oil and energy plans for the future, while also learning that Norway’s carbon emissions have actually been higher than previously reported. “This is embarrassing and now it’s full alarm,” claimed the leader of Norway’s chapter of Friends of the Earth (Naturvernforbundet).
Truls Gulowsen was among those disappointed by confirmation that Norway isn’t meeting its climate goals for 2020 but won’t stop searching for more oil and gas.
First came a report from state statistics bureau SSB (Statistics Norway) with revised figures showing that Norway actually released 1.4 million more tons of emissions in 2019 than previously thought. SSB had overlooked emissions from sales of marine fuel over the past eight years, which also affected results for 2020.
That means that even in a year when the vast majority of airline traffic and other emission-generating activity was dramatically cut back by the Corona virus, Norway only cut emissions by 3.2 percent. That compares to declines of 8.7 percent in Germany, for example, and 6.8 percent in Sweden, where Corona restrictions haven’t been nearly as harsh as in Norway.
“If this wasn’t so tragic, the government’s inability to reach its climate goals would be a joke,” editorialized newspaper Dagsavisen on Thursday. The goal for 2020 was a maximum of 48.6 million tons of carbon equivalents. SSB’s corrected figures now show that Norway generated 50 million tons.
“Despite the decline in car- and airline traffic, Norway has failed again at meeting a climate goal,” Gulowsen said. Others were calling it a new “climate belly-flop.” A hard-pressed Climate and Environment Minister Sveinung Rotevatn preferred to stress the reduction itself, even though it was much less than anticipated.
“Emissions have steadily declined during this government and are at their lowest level since 1993,” Rotevatn stated. “The government wants to cut emissions, not development.” He claimed there also were reductions in emissions from mainland industry and agriculture, and that Norwegian incentives for use of electric- instead of fossil-fueled vehices and its ban on heating oil yield positive effects.
Then came the government’s much-promoted report to Parliament on long-term value creation from Norway’s energy resources. In it, the government confirmed that it intends to keep promoting more offshore oil and gas exploration and production. That’s in line with the government’s earlier defiance of a recently published report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), which claims the world already has enough oil to meet the consumption allowed in 2050 under the terms of the UN’s Paris Agreement.
See the government’s own summary of its report here (external link to the oil ministry’s website).
The report, entitled Putting Energy to Work, nonetheless addresses what must be done to electrify Norway itself and replace oil and gas as an energy source at home. It includes development plans for “greener” energy initiatives within offshore wind power, hydrogen and a strengthening of the power grid, while maintaining a “low-emissions oil and gas sector.” The main goal is to dramatically boost electrification of industry, business, transport and everyday life, while phasing out use of fossil fuels, at least at home. Production and exports of oil and gas will continue.
Oil & Energy Minister Tina Bru of the Conservative Party insisted that Norway’s “green transition” is already underway, despite the country’s only slight reduction in carbon emissions even during the Corona year. She highlighted “concrete plans” for new business ventures based on renewable energy including battery plants and hydrogen production. While wind power turbines have stirred up a storm of protests along Norway’s coast, Bru claimed that offshore wind represents a new “industrial opportunity” in Norway that can exploit the country’s expertise in offshore technology and construction gained during the oil era.
Bru claimed earlier this week that the “historic” energy document will make Norway “greener and better.” She claims an ongoing move towards electrification will not only cut emissions in Norway but “offer fantastic opportunities for business development” and, not least, job creation.
Critics suggest the best way for Norway to cut emissions is to cut back on its oil production. Norway’s biggest problem, though, is to replace jobs likely to be lost if the oil industry can’t keep expanding. Offshore wind turbines can create jobs while being built, but once up and running, they won’t offset job losses on an oil platform, a drilling rig, at a refinery of in the offices of Norway’s many oil-related companies.
The new energy report thus confirms that the Norwegian government “will continue to pursue its (oil and gas) exploration policy with regular concession (licensing) rounds to ensure that new areas for exploration are made available to the industry.” Most of them in the latest controversial licensing rounds have been in environmentally sensitive Arctic areas.
Criticism at home and abroad
That upsets environmentalists and climate activists, both in and out of Norway. Gulowsen of Friends of the Earth claims it’s a “paradox” to keep looking for more oil and gas fields when there’s no room for more oil in the Paris Agreement. Like Gulowsen, Karoline Anduar of WWF in Norway called the prospect of more oil and gas fields “embarrassing” because they’ll put Norway “on the wrong side” of an energy transition.
Janez Potocnik of the UNEP International Resources Panel and former European Commissioner for the Environment was also critical. Potocnik noted that making the transition away from fossil fuel production “will be difficult for all countries.” Norway, however, with its “well-educated workforce and democratic institutions to lead the world’s fight against climate change,” was recently found by the UN’s environment program to be among the “best suited” to do so. “Now, however, it seems they are doing the opposite,” he stated.
While some government critics in Norway simply fear higher electricity rates, others accused Bru, Rotevatn and other top politicians of “greenwashing” emissions from the oil fields, while more, not fewer, oil and gas fields are planned. “What we need is a report that sets clear priorities within the power industry, secures greater energy efficiency and takes care of the environment by not building more wind power plants on land or at sea,” claimed Bjørnar Moxnes, leader of the Reds Party.
Political ultimatum proposed
Five small political parties represented in Parliament have all approved measures at their annual meetings this spring to halt all exploration for more oil and gas. On Thursday the Greens Party challenged them all to form an alliance to issue an ultimatum against more oil exploration. The idea is to force both of Norway’s two steering parties, the Conservatives and Labour, to halt further oil exploration when either forms a new government after the September election.
Two of the parties that officially oppose more exploration, the current Climate and Environement Minister Rotevatn’s Liberal Party (Venstre) and the Christian Democrats, sit in the same government as Bru and already have compromised themselves for the sake of government unity. The Socialist Left Party (SV), which was part of the last left-center government with Labour and the Center parties, won’t commit to an ultimatum despite its opposition to oil. That leaves only the Greens and the Reds firmly opposing the oil industry in Parliament.
The government’s new report on Norway’s energy future remains, however, only a proposal and won’t be acted upon in Parliament during the current session that’s about to end. It wasn’t released in time for parliamentary debate before the summer recess or, more importantly, the upcoming national election in September. When Parliament reconvenes in October, polls suggest a new left-center government will replace the current Conservatives-led coalition. Both of its prospective leaders in the Labour and Center parties have long supported the oil industry, and appear as unlikely as the Conservatives to halt more exploration and production. The bottom line: There’s just too much money at stake.