Norway needs a government which realises that oil does not have a future.
Beyond lip service
Klassekampen, 7 Jul 2017
"This is not the time for tactics or game-playing. This is the time to act and to put our best foot forward. To save our planet – together." This statement came from Norway's prime minister Erna Solberg during the climate conference in Paris in 2015. Admirable words, which mean nothing apparently. Because today, one and a half year later, the Norwegian government is allowing for the exploration of the Barents Sea for oil, across hundreds of kilometers. An unprecedented expansion of industrial activity in a fragile environment that is already suffering the impacts of climate change.
Oil has shaped Norway into one of the richest nations in the world. But this wealth comes with great responsibility. At the same time as the Norwegian government invited the oil industry to make the climate problem even worse, an article appeared in Nature Climate Change that showed that deadly heatwaves will strongly increase in frequency and duration by the end of the century due to our fossil fuel emissions. But not in Norway. No, far away to the south. Primarily in poor countries without a large oil fund.
How can we avoid this future scenario? Christiana Figueres, who led the climate negotiations in Paris, advocated last week that emissions need to go down within three years to stay under two degrees of warming, after which we only have 20 years left to reach zero emissions. By the way, she based these numbers on a Norwegian study, from the research centre CICERO at the University of Oslo. Research also shows that proven oil reserves are much larger than what we can still burn in those 20 years. That reality does not leave any room for the opening up of new oil fields, which includes the Barents Sea. On the contrary: we need an all-inclusive plan which ensures that the oil industry will be phased out in a responsible manner.
Show the world how you really tackle climate change
With elections in Norway in sight, it appears to be the right moment to ensure that the next government takes its responsibility. A government that goes beyond lip service, and realises that oil belongs to the past, not the future. By allowing for the exploration of the Barents Sea for oil it has become clear what the current right-wing government's vision for the future is. But the two largest parties in the opposition aren't doing much better, and oil production can continue in the same way as before.
Even though the social-democratic Arbeiderpartiet highlights climate change as one of its four main themes in its election programme – with the in itself ambitious goal that Norway should be climate neutral by 2030 – a sense of climate urgency is hard to find when it comes to their oil policies. They want an investigation into the possibility of more oil drilling to the southwest of the Lofoten archipelago, and do not exclude further drilling to the north and west of this area. They're more vague about the Barents Sea, because activities in and around the sea ice would not be desirable. But because of the rapid warming of this region, this 'problem' will be solved within a few election cycles. We find the same incompatible attitude with Norway's centre party, Senterpartiet: they proud themselves about the leading role that Norway should have in international climate policies, but they don't speak a word about phasing out the oil industry.
A few weeks ago I happened to attend a lecture about the development of the Troll oil and gas field in the North Sea. The many intricate details clearly showed the unprecedented technological and geological knowledge that was required to turn this oil platform into a success. The heaviest and tallest construction ever moved by man. To repeat such a thing in the unpredictable arctic waters of the Barents Sea won't be easy – and with current low oil prices it's not guaranteed that it will deliver a profit.
No, those low oil prices are an excellent opportunity to reform the oil industry. When low profits forced the oil companies to fire people, a lot of knowledge and experience became available. That knowledge can be utilised by the government to transform the Norwegian oil industry from a cause of the climate problem, to one that helps solving it. The Norwegian oil company Statoil already has experience with capturing CO2 during gas production, after which they pump it back under ground – like in the Sleipner gas field in the North Sea. But in that case the extracted gas is the source of CO2, while we need to extract carbon from the air to achieve a real climate benefit. This possibility exists: recently, the first commercial plant that captures CO2 directly from the air opened near Zürich in Zwitserland. With that technology, CO2 can be stored under ground in Norway.
This idea of carbon capture and storage (CCS) isn't a new concept, also among Arbeiderpartiet and Senterpartiet. But ever too often, they don't go beyond mere lip service. Turn this wish into a reality. Make Norway an honest international leader in climate policies, not one that maintains the climate problem behind the scenes. Be honest towards the industry: no more oil exploration. Instead, deliver another technological and geological master piece, to show the rest of the world how you really tackle the climate problem. The technology exists. The only thing that's lacking is political will.
This text first appeared in Klassekampen on 7 Jul 2017