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Norway likes to portray itself as a “green” nation both domestically and abroad, but it’s a myth



Tomine Sandal,

Norwegian Petroleum Museum in Stavanger, Norway
The oil age is coming to an end? Not in Norway: Before the government took its summer break in 2023, 19 new oil and gas projects were approved. Norwegian Petroleum Museum in Stavanger, Norway, Photo: IMAGO / imagebroker

On the day before Christmas 1969, it was announced that a significant oil discovery had been made at the Ekofisk oil field, about 280 kilometres west of the Norwegian coast. That discovery marked the beginning of what is popularly known as “the Norwegian oil adventure”.

Tomine Sandal is a PhD fellow at the University of Oslo, where she studies twenty-first century Norwegian petrofictions, as part of the Translatability of Oil (TOIL) research group.

The offshore oil discoveries in the Norwegian parts of the North Sea have been viewed as a sort of rags-to-riches story, in which the gift of oil showered Norway with wealth and welfare. In light of the ongoing climate crisis, however, the chances of a happy ending to this fossil fuel fairy tale are increasingly slim.

Nevertheless, that the age of petroleum is almost at an end is a reality that does not yet appear to have taken root in public discourse. The idea that Norway can, and should, be the last nation to turn off its oil taps is a common talking point among politicians and representatives of the oil industry. But how did we get here?

The Myths of the “Green” Oil Nation

The state-owned oil company, Statoil (which literally translates to “state oil”), was established in 1972 at a time when the Norwegian Labour party, or Arbeiderpartiet, was in government. When the oil and gas reserves in the North Sea were first discovered, Norwegian politicians were fairly cautious. The same year that Statoil was founded, the Norwegian parliament adopted the “Ten Oil Commandments”, which became the foundation of Norwegian oil policy.

One fundamental pillar of the text was the central role to be played by the state. This included “national stewardship and control” for all activities on the Norwegian continental shelf, maximum independence, and the involvement of the state “at all appropriate levels”. One of the commandments even stated that: “The development of an oil industry must be founded on necessary considerations for existing business activity, nature conservation, and environmental protection”. Initially, the government restricted the pace of extraction, but this principle was soon abandoned and in the intervening period, the demands of the petroleum industry have generally been met with government concessions.

Although Statoil was partly privatized and thus listed on the stock exchange in 2001, the Norwegian state still owns 67 percent of the company. In 2018, Statoil changed its name to Equinor, becoming less state and oil while still signalling the connection to Norway with the suffix “nor”.

The rebrand was intended to demonstrate that as an energy company, Equinor has a broader scope. According to Greenpeace, however, only 0.13 percent of their energy production actually came from renewable sources in 2022. Moreover, the environmental organization has indicated vast discrepancies between Equinor’s marketing strategy —  as a company supposedly concerned with renewable energy —  and the reality of the fact that it is dealing almost exclusively in fossil fuels.

Another popular myth in Norwegian oil discourse is that the entire world —  particularly those living in more impoverished parts of the globe —  needs more energy.

One could argue that the real reason Norway continues to expand its oil and gas sector —  although it is quite aware that continued dependency on fossil fuel will have dire consequences for the current climate crisis —  is because of how enormously important petroleum revenues are for the Norwegian economy.

Petroleum is the largest industry in the country. Indeed, according to Statistics Norway, oil and gas represented almost three quarters of the country’s total exports in 2022, with the state’s total income from petroleum reaching almost 1,300 billion NOK (111 billion Euro) for the same year. This is equal to 42 percent of the state’s total revenue, and 26 percent of Norway’s GDP.

It seems that money is simply more important than the environment, though, of course, this is seldom admitted in public discourse. Instead, the oil and gas industry —  with Equinor at the forefront —  spend huge sums on lobbyists and advertising campaigns to perpetuate convenient myths about the Norwegian oil industry.

Anne Karin Sæther examines and debunks such myths in her well-researched and insightful book on oil and climate discourse in Norway, De beste intensjoner (The Best Intentions). She discusses Norway’s efforts to simultaneously present itself as both an oil state and a climate conscious nation. Further, Sæther argues that “oil people” —  that is, people from the industry itself as well as oil-obsessed politicians —  have exerted “significant power over perceived reality” in Norway.

A lot of money is spent on creating and maintaining the image of Norwegian oil and gas as “green”, and “climate friendly’, or at the very least not quite as bad the oil industries of other nations. One of the most tenacious myths surrounding Norwegian oil is that it is the “cleanest” in the world. A comprehensive study produced by Stanford in 2018, however, placed Norway at sixth place in a ranking of oil-producing countries.

On paper, certain other countries are responsible for much greater pollution, yet Norway is heavily invested in many of them, both through Equinor itself, as well as through the Government Pension Fund Global (commonly referred to as the Norwegian Oil fund). The fund is fuelled by revenues from the oil and gas industry and currently has an estimated value of over 15,000 billion Norwegian kroner (approximately 1,300 billion euro).

Norwegian ownership in environmentally harmful oil projects outside of the Norwegian continental shelf is thus not limited to the operations of Equinor. For instance, the Norwegian Oil fund has investments —  by way of stakes held in the French oil company TotalEnergies —  in the controversial East Africa crude oil pipeline that will run from Uganda to Tanzania. During the African Climate Summit 2023 in Nairobi, African climate activists branded Norway’s investments in African oil projects “neo-colonial”.

Norwegian Exceptionalism

The idea that Norwegian oil is greener than other kinds of oil fuels a notion of Norwegian exceptionalism. Although the world must take immediate action if we are even to have a chance of keeping global temperatures below the 1.5-degree threshold, Norway should, apparently, be allowed to continue with (oil) business as usual.

One claim upholding this idea is that Norway needs to extract gas to help Europe replace coal, particularly in the current geopolitical climate whereby Russia —  one of the biggest exporters of gas —  is currently waging war in Ukraine. Who does the European energy market deem more trustworthy? The Middle East and Russia, or non-threatening Norway, with its blue fjords and tall mountains?

No matter how pro-oil the political climate is, it is an indisputable fact that fossil fuels are not renewable. A transition needs to occur, it is simply a question of when and how.

It is true that the use of coal leads to more pollution than gas, but this does not mean that replacing coal with gas is directly “good” for the environment: it is just not as bad. As Anne Karin Sæther has pointed out, when the discussion focusses on coal versus gas, oil tends to take a back seat. Equinor benefits from the shift in focus from oil to gas, as the company can appear “greener” than it really is. Furthermore, it is not only coal but also renewable energy sources that Norwegian gas must compete with.

Another popular myth in Norwegian oil discourse is that the entire world —  particularly those living in more impoverished parts of the globe —  needs more energy. In point of fact, however, almost all Norwegian oil and gas is exported, almost exclusively, to the European market. Equinor does not extract fossil fuels out of the goodness of their hearts.

In 1987, The United Nations published the report Our Common Future, also called the “Brundtland Report” after the former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, in which the term sustainable development was first coined. The concept was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Norway’s image as an environmental nation was bolstered by Brundtland’s involvement in the report, as well as the fact that in 1989 it became one of the first countries to establish climate targets. More than 30 years later, however, Norway has yet to meet its climate goals.

What is Norway’s strategy when it comes to climate change? Anne Karin Sæther has formulated it in the following terms: “We have chosen the climate politics that best suits the oil industry.”

Norway has managed to make some cuts to emissions at the national level, but the core of Norwegian climate policy is to pay for emission cuts abroad. Norway has thus elected to throw money at the problem of climate change by simply buying carbon allowances. Moreover, even if Norway were to succeed in cutting emissions nationally, the reality is that most emissions from oil and gas are not released where the fossil fuels are extracted or processed, but rather where they are actually burned.

According to Greenpeace, over 500 million tonnes of CO2 are released into the atmosphere every year as a result of Norwegian oil and gas exports. However, this huge responsibility is not one that the Norwegian government is willing to face.

Where Do We Go from Here?

In 2016, the environmental organizations Young Friends of the Earth Norway and Greenpeace filed a lawsuit against the state of Norway. They claimed that the extraction permits, which the state had granted oil companies in the Barents Sea, violated section 112 of the Norwegian Constitution.

The paragraph in question states that “every person has the right to an environment that is conducive to health, and to a natural environment the productivity and diversity of which are maintained. Natural resources shall be managed on the basis of comprehensive long-term considerations which will equally safeguard this right for future generations”. It also states that “citizens are entitled to information on the state of the natural environment and on the effects of any encroachment on nature that is planned or carried out”. It also states that the government has a responsibility to implement these principles.

It is not just that Norway has invested economically in oil — the Norwegian public has also invested in a certain reality, one largely produced by the oil industry itself.

While the lawsuit generated discussions on the distinctions between law and politics, it has also sparked debates concerning the environmental responsibilities of both the Norwegian oil industry and of the government in terms of how it regulates the industry. The final verdict reached by the Supreme Court of Norway in December 2020 fell in favour of the Norwegian government. While the extraction licences were upheld, the court recognized that the government has a duty to examine impacts of new oil fields on the global climate before approving them.

In true take-out-the-trash-day fashion, Norwegian politicians quietly approved 19 new oil and gas projects just before going on summer vacation this year. Together with Greenpeace, Young Friends of the Earth Norway announced their second climate lawsuit against the state shortly thereafter.

The Norwegian government also recently announced the approval of a plan for the electrification of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant Melkøya, which Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre claims is “the largest single climate measure decided by a Norwegian government”. In reality, the plan serves to extend the lifetime of Norwegian fossil fuel exports by using renewable energy to cut emissions during production. When the gas is actually used, however, it causes just as much pollution as it previously did.

Furthermore, the plant is located in Finnmark, the northernmost part of the country, and electrification depends on the large-scale construction of wind turbines in the indigenous Sami people’s reindeer herding areas. The Sami Parliament Council was not involved in the decision-making process and has strongly opposed the outcome. Several environmental organizations have also voiced their criticism, arguing that “both nature and climate lose out” as a result of the government’s plan.

“The Norwegian oil adventure” still has quite positive connotations in Norwegian public discourse. But no matter how pro-oil the political climate is, it is an indisputable fact that fossil fuels are not renewable. A transition needs to occur, it is simply a question of when and how.

Norway’s dependency on oil is not necessarily just a problem in terms of climate change, it could also become an economic liability. What would happen to demands for Norwegian gas if Europe were to decide to fiercely prioritize renewable energy? If the global political climate were to shift in favour of greater environmental action, Norway would, perhaps, be faced with a scenario in which they have invested too heavily in oil and have held on desperately to a dying (oil) age.

It is not just that Norway has invested economically in oil — the Norwegian public has also invested in a certain reality, one largely produced by the oil industry itself. To move away from oil, tenacious myths need to be addressed and debunked, and the oxymoronic public image of Norway as a “green oil nation” must be dismantled. It is high time for the oil nation to take a good look in the mirror and face up to an image that is not particularly clear.