A ship docks at a port in More og Romsdal, Norway. File/ AFP
The Norwegian Labour Party has joined what is now a clear parliamentary opposition to oil and gas exploration off the coast of the picturesque Lofoten islands in the north of Norway. It sounds like great news, but the country can’t pretend it is not sitting on a fortune – and economic imperatives have so far stymied Norway’s tentative push to end oil dependency.
The areas of Lofoten, Vesteralen and Senja (with carry the catchy acronym LoVeSe) have become a political symbol. The stunning wild landscape, and the traditional fishing industry, form a compelling backdrop for those hoping to leave the oil in the ground and protect the natural wonders of Norway.
Beyond the picture postcard villages, however, Norway’s petroleum adventure continues. The country has continued handing out licences for exploration and drilling in the Barents Sea, out of sight from the Norwegian mainland, with much less political opposition. Drilling in the Arctic carries grave environmental risks for vulnerable bird populations, marine life, and indigenous peoples. It also contributes to climate change.
Arguably, opening new areas in the Arctic makes it impossible for Norway to do its bit to contribute to the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global warming beneath the maximum 2C, and violates Norway’s own constitution.
In Norway’s first climate lawsuit, Greenpeace, and Nature and Youth campaigners, with the support of the Grandparents Climate Campaign, sued the Norwegian state when it issued exploration permits in the 23rd round of licensing in 2016. The suit followed a change to Norway’s constitution in 2014, clarifying that the state has a duty to provide a viable environment for Norway’s population now and in the future.
However, when this untested provision was brought before the courts, politicians claimed it was merely a political declaration – and Brexit has shown how vague those can be.
In that sense, the case was partly won and partly lost in the first round. The Oslo district court stated that the Norwegian constitution does give an actionable right for the people and a duty for the state. The state won on substance, though, with a much-criticised reasoning by the judge that the petroleum extracted in the 23rd round of licensing would be used in other countries and the effect on the climate therefore was not Norway’s responsibility. The case will come before the appeal court in Norway in November. But the state is not waiting around. After being sued, it went on to issue the 24th round in 2018.
In the 23rd round, Norway’s environmental impact assessments were not taken seriously, and this has been further documented in the latest round. Norwegian newspapers revealed that when the state’s own experts advised against drilling in an area because it could decimate a sea bird population, the state commissioned a new report from external consultants, who came to the opposite conclusion.
The 25th round of licensing has been postponed, awaiting new assessments, but the minister of oil and energy said in a speech this month that it would come in 2020. The economic and industrial pressure to keep opening new areas is indisputable, and perhaps immutable.
There is some hope, and it’s not solely driven by international visibility of the jagged peaks and pretty houses of Lofoten. There are also drivers for Norway to truly transition to a renewables-based, sustainable economy.
There is an emerging recognition of the financial risks of continuing with oil and gas. This is the basis for the gradual shift in the investment policy of the Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global, the $1 trillion piggy bank built on fossil fuel revenues – an emblem of Norway’s oil wealth dilemma. We may be approaching a political turning point, fuelled by school strikes to highlight climate risks and an increasingly critical press. Certainly, the political incoherence and hypocrisy of the Norwegian state is striking.
Norway was once hailed as a driving force for the Paris Agreement, and it signed up to a coalition of climate leaders. But it is now one of only a handful of countries in Europe with higher emissions in 2016 than in 1990.
At the end of the day, it may turn out to be the courts, as a part of the international trend of climate lawsuits, that give Norway the defining push in the right direction. The question is still whether it will happen quickly enough.
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