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Norway Is Choosing Its Fossil Fuel Industry Over Climate Action

Climate scientists have called for Norway to stop drilling for gas and oil. But the Labor Party refuses to break its dependency on fossil fuel profits — and this week, it formed a government with centrists rather than the ecosocialist left.

Norwegian Labor Party leader and new prime minister Jonas Gahr Støre. (Bernt Sønvisen / Flickr)

This Thursday, Labor Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre took office as Norway’s prime minister. Already on election night a month ago, it was clear that the Conservative Party and its partners had lost their majority after eight years in power. In the days after the result, Labor announced talks with the Center Party (Senterpartiet, SP) and the Socialist Left Party (Sosialistisk Venstreparti, SV), in the hope of reviving their former coalition and forming a majority government. But this week Støre formed a minority administration, consisting only of Labor and the Center.

Disappointing hopes of a government of the Left, Støre’s negotiations with the Socialist Left Party quickly reached an impasse. It soon became clear that the Labor leader was neither willing to renegotiate last year’s tax-stimulus package for the oil industry — a measure originally implemented by the Conservatives — nor question the government system for handing out licenses for petroleum exploration.

Audun Lysbakken, leader of the Socialist Left Party, told reporters that his party had disagreements with Labor over taxes and wealth distribution, the privatization of public services, and environmental issues. But the key deal-breaker seems to have been a disagreement on oil policies and the continuation of exploration activities.

Labor and the Center Party clearly did not share the Left’s objections to further drilling. Rather, their joint political platform, now the basis for a coalition meant to last until 2025, states that they wish to facilitate a “high level of activity on the Norwegian continental shelf.”

Dependent

From the Socialist Left Party’s viewpoint, this amounts to a refusal to recognize the need to break the Norwegian state’s dependence on export earnings from oil and gas production. Continued investment in gas and petroleum ties much of Norway’s industry to a single source, which siphons off labor and expertise from other kinds of development. This is clearly a poor long-term strategy as the world gradually turns from fossil fuels to renewable energy production.

Støre has responded by claiming that continued petroleum activities and oil exploration are key to reorienting existing industry toward new developing technology, such as hydrogen and offshore wind power. This reflects the Labor Party’s election-campaign emphasis on the need to develop rather than phase out the oil industry — fearing both rising unemployment and reduced state income should it downscale faster than new jobs can be created. The new government platform does promise more active state investment, signaling a move away from the Conservative Party’s strong belief in market solutions.

There is consensus on the Left that continued oil exploration means that Norway will fail to meet the demands of the Paris Agreement, which seeks to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. However, opinions differ rather more as to whether setting a fixed date for halting petroleum and gas production is the most politically effective strategy.

This owes particularly to the political influence of the fossil fuel industry. Environmental organizations and parties on the Left now fear the new Labor-Center government will let the industry’s own narrow interests determine climate and industrial policy for the coming years, rather than set out real plans for an alternative.

This fear is not without foundation. The Center Party’s deputy leader, Ola Borten Moe, is himself part-founder of and a shareholder in the OKEA oil company. As for the Labor Party, it is closely tied to labor unions that above all prioritize defending existing jobs in the sector, rather than looking to putative alternatives.

Greenwashing

The partly state-owned oil company Equinor has long attempted to create the impression of change. It greenwashes itself with plans to power oil platforms with offshore wind in order to reduce carbon emissions from the production process itself. This strategy is now to be implemented through the new government’s policy of cutting emissions and strengthening investments in wind power.

Norway is the world’s third-largest gas exporter and has significant gas reserves. But the International Energy Agency recently announced there can be no new investments in fossil fuels, if the world is to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The Norwegian fossil fuel industry is answering that call by promoting gas as more climate-friendly than coal, while simultaneously hoping to bind the European Union (EU) to future dependence on Norwegian gas.

Norway is not an EU member state, but its role as a supplier to the European market has recently become highly relevant, as rising electricity and gas prices have put the EU’s renewables strategy under pressure. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen recently announced that a strategic gas reserve might be necessary to combat high prices.

But Von der Leyen’s long-term message is clear: The EU must invest in renewables to combat the climate crisis. This reveals a conflict of interest between Norway’s dependence on income from the sale of gas and the EU’s long-term goal of achieving carbon neutrality.

This conflict is itself reflected in the disagreement between the Socialist Left Party and the new government’s policy, insisting that continued gas and oil production can be reconciled with limiting global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

The hope for those who wish to change Norway’s oil policy is that the combined strength of the Socialist Left Party, the Red Party, and the Greens could force the Labor Party toward a more progressive alternative as the climate crisis escalates.

Just days after the Socialist Left Party left the negotiations with the new parties of government, these three left-wing forces presented a joint proposition to halt all oil exploration. Lacking political support from other parties, the proposition’s real target is climate-conscious voters.

And ultimately, Norway’s struggle to rid itself from its heavy dependence on fossil industry is in voters’ hands. As more Norwegians become worried for the future of both the planet and job security, the Labor Party will need to deliver an alternative way forward. Otherwise, the election result next time around might not be in their favor.