Norway should start phasing out oil and gas production – now

Wealthy Norway gladly projects a squeaky green image to the wider world. But Norway can not be a world leader in climate protection without gradually winding down its fossil fuel extraction industry – starting now.

In July, the EU Commission opened a Europe-wide public consultation requesting interested citizens, states and other stakeholders to chip in formulating a long-term strategy to reduce EU greenhouse gas emissions. Once these ideas are sorted out and boiled down, the Commission will put forward its strategy proposal ahead of the next UN climate conference taking place in Katowice, Poland in December 2018.

Norway’s contribution, sent in October, is a study in self-serving hypocrisy. Norway is obviously completely unwilling to make the hard choice that it must if global warming is to be checked at 1.5 degrees Celsius: namely to curb its production of gas and oil, and immediately halt the expansion of drilling in new North and Barents Sea fields.

Phase out gas over 35 years

Indeed, wealthy Norway gladly projects a squeaky green image to the wider world: near 100% renewable power supply, champion of electric mobility, vocal proponent of international climate treaties, tiny domestic carbon footprint, and world-class innovator in cleantech. Norway boasts being “a source of inspiration in the fight against climate change.”

But one only has to scratch the surface to find an ugly underside to all the self-congratulatory back-patting.

In the three-and-a-half-page memo to the EC, Norway audaciously passes off its prodigious gas production as its contribution to the global fight to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. Gas should replace coal, argue the Norwegians forcefully who, of course, extract and now use almost no coal but are the third largest exporter of natural gas in the world and supply Europe with a quarter of its gas. How noble, indeed, anti-coal Norway. The memo even goes so far as to propose that natural gas have an important role in a decarbonized post-2050 world, too. This way Norway wouldn’t have to stop producing gas until the last cubic foot has been sucked out of its territories.

It is, of course, the case that natural gas is less carbon intensive than coal. But gas is a fossil fuel too and we don’t need more of it, but less. Therefore Norway could stop all expansion of gas production and sales immediately – making 2018 the peak in terms of volume – and set a law-bound timetable for phasing it out over the next 35 years. This would send a clear signal to the world that Norway – and Europe – is serious about stopping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius, which the recent IPCC bombshell of a report underscored would, if exceeded, significantly change our lives for the worse. We have about 12 years to buckle down and make the decisions necessary to keep to 1.5. But this has to happen now. Our current measures are simply nowhere near enough, say the international experts frankly.

Large exporter of emissions

Then there’s the even weightier question of Norway’s oil production. In fact, the word”oil” is not mentioned even once in the Norwegians’ contribution. Perhaps this isn’t surprising in light of the fact that 17% of Norway’s GDP stems from oil and gas production. But it is the oil above all that accounts for Norway’s enormous “exported” greenhouse-gas footprint, which if exports were counted in addition to domestic emissions would make it the seventh largest exporter of emissions in the world. This is a spectacular indignity for a little country of just five million people, especially one that calls itself a climate leader.

Are all of the infrastructure and mini-policies of climate-friendly Norway meant to offset the harm of its export footprint? If it is more than a way for Norwegians to feel good about themselves, then more needs to be done. After all, if Norway can’t afford to tighten its belt a little, then what country can?

Oil fields – Norway’s Hambach Forest

The contribution’s underscoring of work on Carbon Capture and Storage is not enough. Since it is regularly dangled by coal and petrochemical producers as the solution of the future, one tends to suspect that it is no more than an excuse for the present. But there has been progress recently, so Norway doubling its research resources for CCS and hydrogen technology too would be welcomed. But it has to happen simultaneously with winding down petrochemical production.

As an excellent report from the watchdog group Price of Oil underscores Norway, among other petroleum producers, must begin now to ramp down fossil-fuel production. It calls the way forward “Managed decline,” which it defines as “restricting new fossil fuel supply projects and carefully managing the decline of the fossil industry over time, while planning for a just transition for workers and communities. Norway must freeze further leases or permits for new oil and gas extraction projects or transportation infrastructure that would incentivize additional exploration. This path gives us a likely chance of achieving the goals of the Paris agreement and avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.”

Price of Oil maintains that Norway’s proposed expansion and projected exploration results would generate 150% more emissions than what is in its currently operating fields.

In Germany recently, protestors, activists and many ordinary citizens chose Hambach Forest in the Rhineland as the location where they were going to say “Stop, no further!” The German energy giant RWE was planning to bulldoze the forest in order to open a new mine for brown coal. There are moments in history when time appears out of sync, when something happens that simply doesn’t make sense in the present. This was the case at Hambach Forest: Germany opening new mines for coal… Huh?!

But, in light of the IPCC report, today Hambach Forest is everywhere coal is being mined and new oil fields are being planned and drilled. Norway’s Hambach Forest are the undersea fields that Equinor and other oil companies are planning to open in the North and Barents Seas. Not only do they harbor vast reserves of gas and oil, but as the Norway contribution to the consultation notes: “more than 1 million tons of CO₂ are captured and stored in saline aquifers under the seabed in the North Sea.” So let’s not destroy them – or Hambach Forest’s trees!

It is time for the Norwegians to step up to the challenge if its political parties won’t. Civil disobedience is justified when laws do nothing. Norway could be a world leader in climate protection. It won’t happen though without gradually winding down its fossil fuel extraction industry.