Norway’s Carbon Cowboys

Transcribed from the 16 October 2019 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole episode:

We have this big company; if we really want to tackle climate change, why not use our state-owned company to push for renewable energy? Why not transfer all those jobs into really pushing for renewable energy instead of continuing to extract gas and oil until the end of the century? Instead of getting rid of the industry, just transform it. Because we can. It’s under democratic control, theoretically.

Chuck Mertz: Here in the US, when we think of Norway, we think of beautiful fjords, untouched by human activity, still in their natural state of serenity, a nation populated by people who are about all things green, with a government that is enlightened when it comes to the environment and climate change. Prepare for all that to change as we discover that Norway is a huge exporter of fossil fuels and an even bigger exporter of climate change.

Here to explain is Henrik Olav Mathiesen. He is a historian and mythbuster, and author of the Dark Mountain article “Cowboy Nation: Norway’s Wild West Fantasy.” Henrik is a doctoral research fellow of history in the department of archaeology at the University of Oslo. He is working on a dissertation that sounds fascinating: it is about the creation of a Norwegian-American transatlantic public sphere in the ninetheenth century as a consequence of the large-scale migration from Norway to the US.

Welcome to This is Hell!, Henrik.

Henrik Olav Mathiesen: Thank you so much, Chuck.

CM: You write, “Equinor is the publicly-owned Norwegian company firmly intent upon wreaking havoc on the world for as long as possible—off our own shores, and far beyond.”

How much pushback is Equinor experiencing from Norway’s citizens who may be opposed to fossil fuel consumption and climate change?

HM: If you’d asked me two years ago, I would have said not much. But the school strikers and Greta Thunberg have really galvanized public opinion here. But unfortunately, it’s really difficult to see changes politically in the near future. We just have to have hope…

CM: How much of a global impact is Norway having on fossil fuel consumption and climate change? How much of a global impact is Equinor having on fossil fuel consumption and climate change?

HM: It’s difficult to know. Equinor controls information about its international affairs. What we do know is that Equinor, as an international company, operates in some thirty countries, including in Brazil, where the leader of the Equinor operation there has just praised Bolsonaro for his treatment of the Amazon. They have quite a strange worldview. But that keeps them going, of course.

CM: Praising Bolsonaro for what is happening in the Amazon…yet I was listening to news radio on the way home from seeing my niece’s play hundreds of miles away, and they start talking about how Equinor has now figured out a way they can have wind power that is not only sustainable but does not need to be subsidized. It is profitable without subsidies, unlike the fossil fuel industry. And they are going to be putting in these huge wind turbines a hundred miles off the shore of England on this plateau, with propellers that are a hundred feet long—it’s going to be a gigantic formation. And they’re all talking about how this is Equinor’s push for green and alternative and clean energy that doesn’t need subsidies unlike fossil fuels.

So how much is Equinor cleaning up their act?

HM: I don’t know much about the Scottish operation, but at home here at least it’s very important for them to portray themselves as green—hence the name change from StatOil to Equinor last year. Although no one knows exactly what they meant by that name, they seem to want to signify some social or environmental equity. Here in Norway, they are electrifying some of their offshore oil platforms. That is to get our emissions down of course. But it’s sticking a band-aid on a gangrene sore. It’s not in the production of the oil where the emissions mainly occur, it is in the burning of it.

Still, that’s a way for them to position themselves. Look, we’re going into wind and green energy! But their main activity of course is gas and oil, and that’s what they’re pushing now into Europe. Our oil fields might reach their peak, so they are trying to secure long-lasting deals for gas instead.

CM: Equinor, though, is not a name that we know here in the US. We wouldn’t have known the old Norwegian state oil company’s name either. The companies that we often hear environmentalists and climate change activists protesting are the ones that you see at the gas station—British Petroleum or Chevron or Shell. Those are the oil companies that we are aware of. I don’t think many people in the United States are aware of Equinor, despite its many activities here in the US, which you point out in the article.

How much does Equinor keep a low profile in order to avoid not only criticism of Equinor itself but criticism of Norway, as Equinor is their state oil company?

HM: That’s a tough question. On the one hand, they run major advertisements in Europe for how green they are. They want to be positioned as a visible actor. But at the same time, at least here in Norway, we know very little about what they are actually doing abroad, because the access to that information is so sparse. We mostly have what they tell us. They do not have to tell the government what they’re doing.

CM: How aware are Norwegians of the actions of their publicly-financed national oil company? If it’s publicly financed, isn’t there some sort of democratic process through which the state oil program works?

HM: Yeah. It’s a wonderfully weird situation, all this. We have this state company. It’s partly privatized now, since 2001, but still the state owns some seventy percent in shares. And it spends millions of dollars every year on propaganda in Norwegian society to tell us all how well it’s doing. Historians here talk about an oil-industrial complex. There is a revolving door between the bureaucracy, politicians, and the oil industry. This means that the oil industry often gets to set the frame of discourse, therefore, and of course they are interested in portraying themselves as benign, and what they’re doing as benefiting the world. They tell these ludicrous stories about how Norwegian oil and gas will save the climate.

But no one spends more money on advertisements and commercials in Norway than Equinor, which means that they are actually quite successful in framing the way we all think about it.

We have a trillion dollars. We could use some of that money, if not all of it, not just divesting from the worst types of activities—why not use it to actually fund some progressive things, like renewable energy; actively use that fund while we have it? It’s absurd that we should only backtrack.

CM: Is it rare, then, in Norway, to see any criticism of Equinor in the media—whether that’s print, TV, radio, or online?

HM: No, there is criticism, especially from the environmental movements. There is pushback. But the company has such a big ideological influence here. You have a hard time arguing against it. One of the narratives the oil industry pushes is that our welfare is due to our oil industry. Of course that’s partly true, but Sweden doesn’t have this kind of industry, and Sweden is doing alright. But that is a very successful narrative to push. It’s a bit like the slave owners in the antebellum US saying how dependent the US was on slaves and the cotton industry—“What would you be without us?” It’s the same argument. It’s successful enough to work and to get a lot of people on board thinking that it’s okay. But it’s problematic.

CM: So you believe that Norway can survive without Equinor? What would happen to Norway without Equinor, in your opinion?

HM: Of course there would be a major impact. But what would happen to Norway is one thing—it’s a multinational company. Most of our revenue is still from Norwegian offshore territory, from extraction, not from what the company is doing. This is a bit of a complicated structure.

There are a few thousand jobs, of course, which something would need to be done about. But a lot of the pushback from the environmental movement is all about how we have this big company; if you really want to tackle climate change, why not use our state-owned company to push for renewable energy? Why not transfer all those jobs into really pushing for renewable energy instead of continuing to extract gas and oil until the end of the century? At least that’s the argument we could make. We have the opportunity to do that.

I’m not sure if we would have that major crash. Instead of getting rid of the industry, just transform it. Because we can. It’s under democratic control, theoretically. The problem is that because of all these neoliberal attitudes towards companies like Equinor and others, and because it’s lucrative, politicians take a hands-off approach. That’s unfortunate. There might be some more pushback from the greens if they grow over the coming years. Because they want to do this.

CM: You write, “Equinor is owned by all Norwegians. This is our nation’s company, our common property, our treasure chest. We save up all our fossil fuel profits in what we call the ‘Government Pension Fund Global,’ colloquially known as the ‘Oil Fund,’ herded along by the national bank. Our trillion-dollar fund invests in dirty industries across the globe. Oil, gas, oil sands—you name it, we have stakes in it.”

To what extent do you think Norwegians and their environmental values have been bought off by Equinor?

HM: I don’t want to blame Equinor alone. Much of the problem here is when International Climate Action was established at the end of the 1980s, this quota system, politicians realized it would benefit Norway to push for that kind of thing, as it allowed our industry to expand because we could afford to buy the quotas and still push hard for it in terms of international progress.

But as you know, the system hasn’t worked very well. The American journalist David Wallace-Wells said something like more than half of the CO² in the atmosphere has been released since the premiere of Seinfeld. So something has gone wrong here. But it has made Norway look from the outside like a very progressive agent on the international scene. What we’re actually doing is exactly the opposite. We’re pumping up more and more oil, and since the 1990s we’ve also expanded to pump up other nations’ oil, like in Brazil or in the US. But it’s created this impression that Norway is a progressive actor. To a certain degree in terms of international politics, yes—but we should all do our bit as well.

CM: You write, “Even when we divest, even when Equinor divests, it is to protect our oil money. The decision in March 2019 to sell our shares in companies exclusively dedicated to oil and gas exploration and extraction was made, according to the minister of finance, ‘to spread the risk’ of our investments.”

Isn’t any divestment from fossil fuel a good divestment? What did you see that was weird about this divestment and how it doesn’t necessarily embrace a fight against climate change?

HM: That’s a great question. Of course it’s good. Every small step is good, in the same way as trying to replace coal with less CO²-intensive fuel is good. But it still doesn’t get you very far. The problem with that decision, which was very well-praised in international media, is that this wasn’t about tackling climate change. This was about securing Norwegian oil money from a value loss if in the future the oil and gas industry, globally, would be devalued. And the absurdity of it really comes home when you think about this: we have this trillion-dollar fund. And yes, we do have an ethics council, which tries to take the worst heat of things. But we have a trillion dollars. We could use some of that money, if not all of it, not just divesting from the worst types of activities—why not use it to actually fund some progressive things, like renewable energy; actively use that fund while we have it? It’s absurd that we should only backtrack. That’s my opinion, at least.

CM: Here in the US, when we think about possible reforms, we think about things like nationalizing an industry and how that could save that industry, how that could make that industry more ethical. You were just talking about the ethics council that you have in Norway—that would be a reform in the United States, even though we do have some ethics councils within our government. Yet when Equinor goes to the ethics council, the ethics council seems to side with Equinor.

Is the ethics council in Norway an efficient and effective institution, except that when it comes to Equinor it suddenly turns a blind eye?

HM: It’s effective in what it thinks it needs to do, I guess. It could certainly be made into a much more progressive instrument. Everything here is the state in various disguises, right? Equinor is state-owned, and of course the Oil Fund is state-owned. It’s meant to be controlled by the ministry of finance, even though the minister herself likes to take a hands-off approach to whatever the Oil Fund wants to do. But you could very easily imagine: the minister of finance and even the prime minister could just tell the ethics council that we should do much better. Because we can. But time and again, politicians choose not to use all the democratic instruments we have in our toolbox. That’s the frustration I wanted to convey when writing up my article.

CM: Does Norway’s government stance on climate change in any way complement or contradict the position of Equinor? How much does the Equinor position line up with the environmental policy position of the Norwegian government—at least the one they try to signal to people rather than the one that they seem to tolerate with Equinor?

Norway has a historic relationship with colonialism on the western frontier—and it’s still ongoing. There is an argument to be made that we have a historical responsibility there; so much of our population departed for America in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. And almost five million people in the US today claim Norwegian heritage—that’s the same size as the population of today’s Norway.

HM: There’s a lot of parroting going on. The oil industry uses the exact same arguments as politicians, and vice versa, including this government. There are two arguments that are being pushed. One is that Norway has the cleanest oil and gas production in the world, so we’re helping the climate by replacing other nations’ much dirtier oil and gas, whatever that means. And there is also the idea that Norway should have an impact abroad, so they push for selling Norwegian gas to Europe and for using gas as a bridge to come to net-zero internationally.

Theoretically that does make sense, but there have been so many studies now over the past five years or so which have shown that actually gas is no better than coal. Less CO² but more methane. It’s basically the same. Gas is a bridge to nowhere, as one scientist has called it. But that’s what’s being pushed. That’s what’s being pushed by Equinor, and that’s what’s being pushed by the government.

CM: You write, “The Wild West is nothing but Norway’s own backyard. I’m not simply referring to the fact that the country emptied itself of more than 750,000 of its inhabitants as Norwegian inhabitants sought cheap soil to farm in the American Midwest. Seeking land on the frontier and thereby contributing to the displacement of the indigenous populations there, Norwegians quickly learned how to grow cash crops and become capitalist farmers for an emerging US grain export market.”

Why, in your opinion, does this seem to be a Norwegian trait? Why do you think this cowboy mentality is so embraced by Norwegians?

HM: Wherever there’s a buck to be made, right? I actually wanted to put this bit in my article which I ended up not using: for a long time, there was a project planned to chop all the pristine glacier ice in northern Norway to sell to luxurious bars around the world: they would chop up the ice and transport it down in helicopter and then jet it all the way around the world. This is while our glaciers are melting. In the end it was canceled, but it says something about our willingness to make a buck, even out of climate change.

When it comes to the US, I wanted to emphasize that we had a historic relationship with colonialism on the western frontier—and it’s still ongoing. There is an argument to be made that we have a historical responsibility there; so much of our population departed for America in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. And almost five million people in the US today claim Norwegian heritage. That’s the same size as the population of today’s Norway. It’s a huge population.

CM: You write, “In North Dakota in 2009, 30.8% of the state’s population reported themselves to be of Norwegian ancestry. The original Bakkens in North Dakota were the Norwegian immigrant farmers Otto and Mary Bakken.”

This is the Bakken oil field in North Dakota that is now producing so much oil—one of the largest producers in the area. Does Equinor, then, get any sort of free pass, environmentally, from locals in the Dakotas when it comes to fossil fuel exploration and exploitation because they are a Norwegian company, and the people who are living there are the descendants of Norwegians and they therefore have some sort of affinity for that company?

HM: That’s a great question. I don’t know how Equinor is seen in Bakken, in North Dakota. But certainly in Norway, if I told most people about Equinor being operative in Bakken, they wouldn’t know. In my article I tried to lift up the great work that our Sámi journalists have been doing to expose the Norwegian investments in the pipeline from Bakken, the Dakota Access pipeline. But for all their great work, even these journalists didn’t realize that Equinor was operating in Bakken. They never wrote about it.

They move around quietly in the world. At least it doesn’t enter Norwegian public discussion, even if we have this situation where we are funding so much of the Dakota Access pipeline—which is absurd. Equinor, like the oil fund, is a state institution. So the Norwegian presence in total there is quite astonishing. But I don’t know how they’re treated in North Dakota. I know that North Dakota has welcomed the fracking boom, even though socially there have been quite a few problems, I understand.

CM: You write, “It was the indigenous Sámi division of Norway’s national broadcasting corporation, NRK-Sápmi, which took the trouble of digging up and exposing the heavy Norwegian investments in the Dakota Access pipeline.”

But one would argue then—aren’t the Sámi vulnerable to the same economic deprivations as white Norwegians if Equinor were not as financially successful as it is? Why do you think the indigenous people here in the United States as well as the indigenous people in Norway are willing to be opposed to Equinor without concerns about how they might be economically deprived, yet it seems like white Norwegians are very concerned about this?

HM: This is a transnational movement. Our Sámi population here has been trying to connect to other indigenous populations around the world, because more and more of these various indigenous populations realize that they are in the same boat. The Sámi in Norway are treated well, I believe, for the most part, even though there is friction between the state and the indigenous population here. But I think the project that these journalists were doing was to highlight the transatlantic connection here—it’s quite real, and it’s about solidarity I think.

But even if the Sámi here pushed for a greater consciousness of what Norwegians are doing abroad, there is still the minister of finance dressing up like Pocahontas. It’s a totally different reality that most Norwegian white people live in, I guess.

CM: You write about how the ministry of finance in Norway had thrown its annual autumn party celebrating the completion of the state budget for the upcoming year: “It was to be a dress-up party, the theme of which was fitting: superheroes, fantasy, and—would you have guessed it—the Wild West. Siv Jensen had evidently been inspired by the recent Standing Rock controversy and the feeble protest in our Norwegian parliament, opting for the Pocahontas look. Then our minister of finance, in full redface, posed for the camera and updated her Instagram account.

“The president of the Sámi parliament, Aili Keskitalo, pointed out the obvious bad taste of dressing up as fantasy Indians when distraught indigenous people from North America had just left the country [to return to protesting at Standing Rock after confronting the government of Norway and Equinor’s participation in the pipeline], stating: ‘I find it reprehensible that she who is the head of the Pension Fund Global dresses up as if she’s making fun of those who actually suffer from the money we earn.’ Siv Jensen’s deputy, Petter Kvinge Tvedt, spoke on behalf of the minister and urged Keskitalo to have a sense of humor and to ‘stop being so sensitive.’”

Does Equinor, then, more than anything reveal Norway’s racism?

HM: Yeah. I think it does. It’s usually quite subtle. You might think that this was just stupidity. But to answer in brief, I think it’s quite concerning to witness people in power telling indigenous peoples to stop being so sensitive. So I just have to answer yes.

CM: Henrik, I really appreciate you being on the show this week. Thank you so much.

HM: Thank you for inviting me. It was great being here.

Featured image: An Equinor well pad in the Bakken fields of North Dakota. Source: Twitter. Note: This faux-pastoral image had been company propaganda about their US operations, so we touched up the colors in a minor act of subversion. It’s getting hot in here.

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