Why electric car capital of the world is having nasty fights over oil

Norway is rapidly embracing clean energy and electric vehicles, but citizens are deeply divided over calls to stop drilling for oil.
File photo of electric cars being charged at an EV charging station in Norway.
File photo of electric cars being charged at an EV charging station in Norway.

In one of the greenest cities in the world, where electric cars abound and almost all carbon emissions will be eliminated within a decade, the debate about climate change isso poisonous that the police areinvestigating violent threats against one of its top officials.

Lan Marie Nguyen Berg, the Green Party politician who’s a vice mayor of Norway’s capital Oslo and a strong voice forclimate policies, has received a stream of hate messages, threats, and racist comments on social media. She’s become a target in large part for highlighting the contradiction at the heart of the Nordic nation’s economy.

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Norway portraysitself as progressive and environmentally conscious, but is also Western Europe’s largest oil and gas producer. On a per-capita basis, it has more electric cars than any other country while pumping more oil than Saudi Arabia or Russia.

“We are only five million people, but are still among the world’s largest exporters of oil and gas," Berg said in an email. “It is very important for Norwegian climate policy that we stop looking for even more oil and gas, and stop new field developments."

That’s one of the benchmarks established in the International Energy Agency’s road map to global net-zero emissions by 2050. It’s also what the Green Party will demand if it becomes part of a coalition government after elections in September, setting up a political showdown that could upend Norway’s most important industry.

The oil and gas sectoremploys about 200,000 people and has filled the coffers of the $1.4 trillion sovereign wealth fund, which will underpin the welfare of generations to come. Enforcing decline on the industry couldhave a bigger and more lasting impact on Norwegians’ lives than any climate policy to date, and the issue looks set to provide some of the most heated moments in the election campaign.

Yet one of Berg’s fiercest defenders against online abuse happens to be her chief political rival, Petroleum and Energy Minister Tina Bru of the oil-friendly Conservative Party. “I CAN’T STAND IT ANYMORE," Bru posted on Facebook in May, along with screen shots of abusive messages sent to Berg. “Shut up!" A few days later, police decided to investigate the matter.

There’s a reason why the attacks struck a nerve. Bru has also experienced online abuse because of her support of onshore wind power, underscoring how sacred the oil industry is to Norwegian voters. The two women come from different ends of the political spectrum, but are allies inpushing for more clean-energy investments—they just disagree sharply on how quickly the shift needs to happen.

Bru speaks proudly of Norway’s green policy achievements, such as running on close to 100% renewable power, the subsidy-driven expansion of its electric car fleet, and ferries that run on hydrogen. But shemounts an equally robust defense of her oil policies, which are directly opposed to those of Berg.

“I do not have a bad conscience for Norway being an ambitious climate nation at the same time as we have oil and gas production," Bru said. Her party won’t be following the IEA road map because “if we were to decide tomorrow that we’ll stop producing oil and gas on the Norwegian shelf, other countries will say: ‘Okay, we will supply this’."

For now, Norway’spolicy is to shave a fraction off the carbon emissions generated by oil and gas extractionby powering production facilities in the North Sea with renewable electricity. On Friday, the government will publish a paper on energy policy, including its plans for offshore wind, hydrogen, exploration for seabed minerals, and oil and gas.

Through its membership of the European Economic Area, Norway has committed to a cut of 50% to55% by 2030 in so-called non-quota emissions from sectors including agriculture, waste and transport. While it doesn’t have a net-zero goal, the nation aims to cut overall pollution as much as 95% by mid-century and touts the carbon-absorbing power of its vast forests. None of its targetstake into account emissions from theoil and gas that Norway sells to other countries.

Norway’s state-owned oil firm Equinor ASA aims to be net-zero by 2050,though nonprofit Carbon Tracker still rates its climate goals below those of rivals Royal Dutch Shell Plc, BP Plc and Total SE.

All of the major parties in Norway want the oil industry to continue to explore for and develop new fields, but the process of forming a coalition after the September elections could disrupt the status quo.Polls suggest that the Labor Party is currently in the lead, though it will need support from smaller parties to govern. That will probably include the SocialistLeft Party, Green Party or Red Party, all of which advocate for less drilling.

“Regardless of which side wins the election, the large oil-friendly parties will have to negotiate with smaller parties that want to stop new oil activities," said Bard Lahn, a researcher at the Cicero Center for International Climate Research in Oslo.

If her party finds itself in the position of king-maker, Berg is clear that it will take full advantage of it. “The Green Party cannot support a prime minister who accepts new oil exploration or new petroleum developments in Norway," she said. “This is an ultimatum."

Negotiations to form a government have ended in compromise after previous Norwegian elections. In 2018, the Liberal and Conservative parties reached a deal to keep the oil industry away from the Lofoten islands, a fragile area of natural beauty.

This time around, the oil industry’s opponents may have a stronger hand, said Lahn. It’s likely they could put a much larger area off limits—the Barents Sea in the Arctic, where most of Norway’s undiscovered oil and gas is believed to be located.

If that happened it would be a bolder step than Norway’s North Sea neighbor the U.K. or the Netherlands, which have net-zero goals but don't have plans to end oil and gas exploration and production.Denmark, which produces much less oil than Norway, last yearstopped offering new oil and gas licensesand vowed to end production by 2050.

ForOlav Fykse Tveit, the presiding bishop in the Church of Norway who spoke at the Paris climate talks in 2015, going green domestically doesn’t mean the international community will let Norway off the hook for its fossil fuel exports.

“We must realize and acknowledge that our credibility is being questioned—that’s what I’ve experienced around the world," Tveit said. Norway has greater financial resources than most countries to tackle this problem and “we must do something about it, and be willing to sacrifice something."

This article is part of Bloomberg Green’sCarbonBenchmarksseries, which analyzes how countries plan to reach net-zero emissions.Click here toget e-mail alertswhen new stories are published.

First Published Date: 10 Jun 2021, 12:30 PM IST

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