Carbon on their hands

Daily Parse | A court case seeks to determine whether Norway should be held responsible for the carbon pollution caused by the oil it exports

Calling a climate emergency (📸: Johanna Hann / Greenpeace)

Kevin McGwin

The oil and gas industry has made Norway one of the richest countries in the world. In the half century since Oslo began allowing oil firms to drill in its sector of the North Sea, the industry has, according to official statistics, contributed more than 14 trillion kroner (€1.28 trillion) to the Norwegian economy, excluding related activities.

It has also given the country a considerable nest egg. A policy of investing state revenue from the oil industry has seen the value of Oljefondet, the national sovereign-wealth fund, balloon to just under 11 trillion kroner, or 2 million kroner for each and every Norwegian.

There is more where it all came from: about half of Norway’s recoverable resources remain in the ground. Yet while most activity continues to take place in the North Sea, reservers there have already begun their decline. The largest remaining deposits, some of which are reckoned to be sizeable, are further north, in the Barents Sea.

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So far, progress turning those profits into profitable ventures has been slow; only two fields are actively producing, though more are close to coming on-line. Oslo considers this merely a slow start. It is keen for companies to keep searching is eagerly selling exploration permits. Should all go according to projections, Norway will be producing more oil than ever in 2024.

None of this squares well with Norway’s image, neither abroad nor at home; indeed, for Norwegians, power is something that is generated by hydroelectric dams and, increasingly, wind turbines. For Norway, oil is an export commodity. Oslo’s argument is that whether it pumps its oil or not, the demand will still be there; better that it come from a supplier with high safety standards and thorough oversight, and that the country use the proceeds to make activist investments.

Objection to this position is mounting. One beef with the continued sale of licences in the Barents Sea is that the exploration is creeping ever further north. Even though the Barents Sea is held mostly ice-free by the Gulf Stream, its northern reaches, the areas where oil firms will now be permitted to search for oil, are perilously close to the winter extent of sea ice, conservationists fret.

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In addition, Bjørnøya, a nature reserve, lies within the exploration area. It is surrounded by an exclusion zone where drilling may not be conducted, but oil from a spill could reach the island.

The second complaint, argued by Greenpeace and Natur og Ungdom, two conservancies, is that Norway is violating its own and international law by continuing to drill for oil. The most recent version of the Norwegian constitution equates a clean environment with human rights; article 112 obliges the country to provide its residents a healthy natural environment that is “managed on the basis of comprehensive long-term considerations that will safeguard this right for future generations”. The damage done by the carbon pollution stemming from the oil Norway produces belongs on its books, regardless of where it is burnt, they argue. Likewise, protecting an environment locally cannot happen unless emissions are cut globally. 

Similarly the two groups say Norway cannot meet the provisions of the 2015 Paris agreement if it continues to drill. Norway was one of the first countries to ratify the treaty, and it is now on the hook to cut emissions of greenhouse gasses by 50% by 2030.

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Greenpeace and Natur og Ungdom have taken their arguments to Norway’s courts to force the drilling to stop. After losing the initial case, they also lost a subsequent appeal, although here the court did agree that emissions from oil exported were, in fact, Norway’s responsibility. A second appeal, this one to the supreme court, began on Wednesday.

Its ruling will be the final legal say on whether Norwegians can continue to have a clean conscience about being filthy rich.

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