Norwegian government officials were back in court on Tuesday, trying to fend off another legal challenge to their refusal to stop searching for more oil and gas. On the eve of the next UN climate summit, they’re on the defensive after being sued by local environmental organizations demanding an immediate halt to the development of more oil fields — while also facing rising international pressure to curb oil and fund more climate measures as well.
Leaders of Greenpeace Nordic and Natur og Ungdom (Young Friends of the Earth Norway) argue that the government’s recent and controversial approvals of more oil fields violate the Norwegian constitution and Norway’s international human rights commitments, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. They demand an immediate halt to ongoing development of the oil fields.
Gina Gylver of Natur og Ungdom was among those angered by the Labour Party-led government’s decision earlier this year to open more oil fields and grant more exploration licenses, at a time when Norway needs to be cutting carbon emissions instead of creating more in the future. Both Labour-and Conservatives-led governments have continued to expand Norway’s oil and gas industry over the years, defying calls not least from the UN to rein it in.
Gylver and Pleym argue that Norwegian officials, often accused of lacking political willingness to cut back on oil exploration and production, are thus violating “the fundamental rights of current and future generations.” Their approval of three new offshore oil fields (Tryving, Bridablikk and Yggdrasil) will have a “dangerous and deadly” climate impact on both current and future generations, Gylver claims, putting “a grossly unfair burden on young people.” It’s time, she adds, that the government “puts children’s best interests first in oil matters, and stops fueling the climate crisis by locking us into decades of more oil and gas.”
Pleym, meanwhile, calls Norway “a climate hypocrite, not a climate leader,” noting how Norway is sending a delegation to the latest UN climate talks (COP28) in Dubai that includes Norwegian oil companies Equinor and Aker. He hopes the trial “will put international pressure on Norway to commit to a fossil fuel phase-out at COP.” Both he and Gylver believe they’re legally backed by a Norwegian Supreme Court decision from 2020 that now calls for Norwegian officials to evaluate global climate consequences before they approve new oil projects.
International pressure on Norway is already building, not least after government officials were not invited to speak during a special climate session at the opening of the UN General Assembly in New York earlier this fall. While Norway has been praised for cranking up production of gas for a Europe in crisis, the head of the International Energy Agency (IEA) Fatih Birol continues to criticize oil companies in Norway and elsewhere for not restructuring away from fossil fuels quickly enough.
Birol was back in Oslo last week, to speak at Equinor’s annual autumn conference. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) noted that his tone has changed, from hailing Norwegian oil and gas production as necessary and among the least polluting in the world, to claiming that all the oil and gas needed until 2050 (when the world is supposed to be emissions-free) has already been found. He also pointed to a big contrast between what oil companies say and what they actually do. He didn’t accuse Equinor of so-called “green-washing,” and even called the Norway’s largest company “the best in the class,” only to quickly caution that “it’s not a very good class.”
The current Norwegian government’s open claim that it doesn’t want to phase out but rather develop the oil industry has also met strong criticism both at home and abroad. The IEA has suggested that any new oil exploration should only occur near existing fields, not in outlying areas of the Arctic that Norway has opened up.
Professors Ola Kvaløy and Klaus Mohn at the University of Stavanger, both members of a state climate commission, wrote in DN on Tuesday that Norway can afford to halt more oil and gas exploration. They estimate the value of undiscovered oil fields at equal to just 1 percent of Norway’s Oil Fund, where oil revenues over the years have been stashed for future generations. There’s little doubt the state’s reluctance to curb exploration and production is economically motivated, but the professors and others have faith Norway can easily survive a managed decline of the industry.
New Climate Minister Andreas Bjelland Eriksen, who also comes from Norway’s oil capital of Stavanger, insists the government is keen on restructuring as quickly as possible. He points to carbon capture and storage projects and more use of alternative energy. He told newspaper Klassekampen that Norway still expects oil and gas production to be 70 percent lower in 2050 than it is today. He hasn’t given up on Norway’s own goals for emission cuts, even though the leaders of most all other political parties have. Norwegian researchers at the Cicero center for climate research have also given up on meeting the goal of just a 1.5 degree increase in global warming. That’s not even theoretically possible now, they agree.
Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister, became the latest international dignitary to prod Norway into taking more responsibility for how its oil and gas affect the climate. He wrote, also in DN, last week that Norway has a unique global status, as both an “oil-rich” country and a leader in global climate and development projects.
Brown noted that if Norway and other petro-states in the Gulf, where the next climate summit is taking place, donate just 3 percent of their oil export revenues, it would raise USD 25 billion to finance climate measures in poor countries. They’re often those hit hardest by drought, floods, rising seas and other effects of the climate change linked to fossil fuel emissions.
Saudi Arabia could afford to contribute the most, according to Brown, while Norway can afford to pay its share since its export revenues doubled last year on the high prices spurred by Russia’s war on Ukraine and an ensuing energy crisis. Most important, wrote Brown, such contributions from wealthy oil nations would give poor countries hit by climate crises the hope that was missing after the last climate summit.
The Norwegian government reacted by claiming that Norway already is using parts of its recent windfall oil profits on climate measures. “I think Norway is delivering,” development minister Anne Beathe Tvinnereim told DN. She points to NOK 5 billion in loan guarantees from Norway for private climate investments, other guarantee programs through the World Bank and a climate investment fund.
Tvinnereim agrees that Norway’s wealth obligates it to help others, but stressed how those generating carbon emissions must pay the price for them, not those producing the oil that they use. She indicated Norway will be ready to defend itself at the UN climate summit, and that’s likely to be necessary. Norway’s international reputation has been declining because of both its oil industry and its windfall profits.
“Poor countries are getting tired of paying the bill for wealthy countries’ over-consumption of fossil energy,” Lan Marie Berg of Norway’s Greens Party told DN. She called Gordon Brown’s proposal “visionary and responsbility,” and what’s needed in order for the world to meet its climate goals. The trial in Oslo over Norway’s oil industry development, meanwhile, is due to run into December.