Norway’s Green Delusions

The country may seem a haven for clean energy, but that’s because it exports its pollution.

A gas flare burns on Norway's Sleipner gas platform on May 15, 2008. (Daniel Sannum-Lauten/AFP/Getty Images)
A gas flare burns on Norway's Sleipner gas platform on May 15, 2008. (Daniel Sannum-Lauten/AFP/Getty Images)

In Norway, the end of summer is an odd time. It’s the close of cabin season, during which scores Norwegians abscond to their hundreds of thousands of registered vacation homes in the mountains, by the fjords, or on the coast to catch precious rays of sun. Norwegians, the numbers show, simply love the idea of being isolated in the great outdoors. There’s even a word for it: “Friluftsliv,” which roughly translates to free-air life, applies to anything done in nature and symbolizes a kind of cultural attachment to natural spaces. During the summer months, the term gets tossed around a lot.

By September, however, sunlight is scarcer, and nature-loving cabin-dwellers are back in the cities. Most of them hold down office jobs, and many are employed by a variety of oil and gas companies. As of 2017, about 6 percent of the Norwegian labor force is employed, directly or indirectly, by the petroleum industry. That number might seem relatively small, but it understates the actual value of fossil fuels to the Norwegian economy. Crude oil and natural gas amount to half of the total value of Norway’s exports, which means that, one way or another, most every Norwegian is touched by the fossil fuel industry.

To be clear, calling out individual nature-loving oil workers for hypocrisy is beside the point, somewhat similar to harassing a socialist for owning an iPhone. However, it is worth asking how a nation built on—and defined by—oil can portray itself as green, as Norway does, and what that means for future efforts to cut down on carbon emissions.

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Norway is almost entirely run on hydropower, which meets about 95 percent of the country’s energy needs. New buildings larger than 500 square meters (about 5,000 square feet) are required to get 60 percent of their energy from a renewable source. Cities have vast green spaces, bike lanes, and little traffic. Oslo’s city center is slated to be car-free by 2019. And if one must own a car, it should be an electric vehicle. Norwegians who own them get breaks on parking fees, tolls, and more. All this means that, by some measures, Norway is among the world’s greenest countries. (Environmental Performance Index rankings place it at No. 14.)

By others, however, it is not. Norway dredges up more oil per capita than most other countries in the world. Only Equatorial Guinea, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates beat it. Most of that oil comes from deep-sea drilling operations in the North Sea. Increasingly, though, it could also come from Barents Sea, which the Norwegian government opened for oil and gas exploration in 2017. It was the first time in decades years that Oslo had marked new areas for mapping, and Norway chose to do so in a particularly ecologically sensitive place. Parts of these fields lie at the southern edge of the polar ice cap, home to one of the Northern Hemisphere’s largest colonies of birds and the roaming grounds for polar bears in the winter. Should drilling go ahead, it would entail the deployment not only of new rigs but also of a vast architecture for transporting oil and gas to shore and beyond.

Most of the oil and gas produced by Norway is not used at home but is exported. In fact, the country is the one of the world’s top fossil fuel exporters. Beyond that, Norway is also a noteworthy global investor in fossil fuels elsewhere in the world. Its Government Pension Fund Global, commonly referred to as the “Norwegian oil fund” because it was developed to reinvest profits from Norway’s state-owned oil giants, is the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. It is involved in plays ranging from property to renewable energy, but a hefty 6.2 percent of the fund is invested in the international oil and gas sector.

Through it all, however, Norway can still claim to be green. After all, according to Peter Erickson, a scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, institutions like the Paris climate agreement typically judge countries based on how much they are able to reduce emissions within their own borders. And only about 5 percent of emissions from oil and gas come from production. The rest come from consumption, which happens outside Norway. When taking into account Norway’s dependence on exporting fossil fuels, the Environmental Performance Index ranks the country fairly low, 128th, for carbon dioxide emissions intensity.

Still, even in terms of the small amount of emissions that do come from production, the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate claims Norway is doing things right. It produces, the argument goes, the cleanest oil and gas on the market. According to a 2015 paper from the Statistics Norway Research Department, the world average of emissions from oil and natural gas extraction is about 130 kilograms of carbon dioxide per ton. As of 2012, Norway’s average was 55 kilograms per ton. Yet even though overall production of oil and gas in Norway has fallen, greenhouse emissions have stayed about the same, which is of concern. And a documentary and accompanying article by NRK, the state television channel, shows that 55 kilograms per ton might not be that much to brag about. Using data from the Carnegie Endowment and Knut Einar Rosendahl, a professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, researchers showed that Ghawar and Safaniya, fields run by Saudi Arabia, emit around 50 and 30 kilograms of carbon dioxide per ton.

It is true that Norway is taking great steps toward becoming a zero-emissions society, but viewing the country’s record as unflawed is another case of Scandimania gone awry. Although the Norwegian public values many green policies, there is less pressure to end drilling. Trine Villumsen Berling, a political scientist at University of Copenhagen, argues that a positive portrayal of Norwegian oil and gas in the country’s culture and politics has been essential as a way to square economic realities with the country’s appreciation for nature. It is not enough to produce oil on the basis of its profitability. Norway’s gas must be the “cleanest in the world,” the “key to welfare,” and so on. When the Norwegian Green Party or Greenpeace suggests phasing oil out on environmental grounds, they are easily countered by the government, because so many positive notions about Norwegian oil are already embedded in the public conscience.

In some ways, this story speaks to a global tension between environmentalism and development, something that is typically thought to be an issue more for developing countries. India and others frequently claim that poverty alleviation unavoidably comes with a side of pollution. And with the Paris agreement establishing a carbon budget for each country, Norway’s most lucrative customer, the European Union, will likely be looking to greener electricity, which means that Norway could have to ply its wares elsewhere, including in the developing world.

After all, Norway, too, needs to fund its welfare state. And it would be nearly impossible to do so once the oil and gas reserves are empty or if the industry is stymied. Still, portraying the country’s petroleum industry as green does Norwegians a disservice. At some point, Oslo must face the fact that it is part of the world’s environmental problem, not the solution. A continual denial of the ill effects of Norwegian oil and gas will make an eventual transition to a green economy even slower, putting Norway and other oil-producing countries at a disadvantage on international energy markets and making the economic effects even harder to cope with when they come.

Lars Petter Teigen is a writer, translator, and teacher currently living in Vietnam.

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