It’s a puzzling place, Norway. On the one hand, like its Scandinavian neighbours, the country boasts a far higher degree of environmental sophistication than Britain and several other Western democracies. Electrified transport systems and renewables are years ahead of ours; recycling and the quest for locally sourced produce are deeply engrained in the national consumer fabric. The country has also taken a leadership position on climate change, notably pledging vast sums to combat deforestation in the developing world. The people in charge of this effort are impressive, dedicated and decent.
Yet there are some alarming peculiarities. Whaling is one, and it continues to hamper Norway’s image as a paragon of sustainability. But a newer aberration is the country’s sponsorship of Arctic drilling, and the bizarre decisions of its best-known energy giant, Statoil, which, as its name suggests, is 67% state owned.
Statoil loves talking (or rather, washing) green. It has spent millions on the now traditional advertising and marketing push so beloved of big polluters, with slogans about ‘fuelling the future’, encouraging ‘elites’ to recharge their phones at handy Statoil-funded points in airports, and generally exuding the benefits of natural gas, renewables and the like. A few years ago the company genuinely seemed to stand out from its peers, particularly the less edifying operators like Gazprom.
Now Statoil, in cahoots with its national government, is in a show down with green campaigners over its attempt to drill in the Norwegian Arctic, specifically the Hoop area of the Barents Sea. The plans present a real and present danger to the Bear Island wildlife sanctuary, a haven for rare species and the threatened polar bear. In the past few days, Greenpeace activists have managed to stall Statoil’s progress, but it’s clear the Norwegian government’s allegiance lies firmly with the company, not the marine environment.
This folly threatens not just the Arctic (a spill could reach Bear Island in less than a week), but the international reputation of the Norwegian government as a responsible player in the international climate debate. Few have commented on the supreme irony of Norway investing billions in curbing deforestation worldwide whilst allowing Statoil’s reckless emissions joyride in the Arctic. Surely one would effectively cancel out the other?
A big share of Norwegian wealth is based on oil drilling and state-owned oil Statoil is becoming increasingly aggressive. The standards by which Statoil operates within Norway are fairly high, but at the same time the firm is now engaged in one of the most damaging ecological gambles in the world. Statoil, by the way, has also invested in the tar sands projects in Canada and deep sea drilling off Brazil. Strangely, they don’t talk about this much at the handy phone recharging units or in their green adverts.
Statoil has lined up three exploration sites, and is now positioning itself to take the lead in Arctic drilling, just as Shell looks ready to throw in the towel after two years of squandered shareholder money, not to mention global humiliation and ridicule.
If Norway is to safeguard its increasingly precarious reputation as an environmental champion, it must use its political power over Statoil to stop this deadly escapade in its tracks before it’s too late to clean up the likely damage. In the meantime, it will be hard to expect emerging economies to take any lectures from the Norwegian authorities about climate change. I wonder what the many excellent climate diplomats in the Norwegian government make of it all.