Drawing lessons

19.05.2015
Roar Hagen

Illustration: Roar Hagen

“I was on the moon – honest!”
One of the prestige projects pursued by Jens Stoltenberg as Labour prime minister (2005-13) was the “moon landing” at Mongstad – a major scheme for carbon capture at this refinery north of Bergen. Claims were long heard that the carbon dioxide problem had been overcome.

 

I joined perhaps Norway’s wealthiest daily paper, in the heart of Norway’s “oil capital”, when I started work at Stavanger Aftenblad in 1978. That was in the early days of the Norwegian offshore adventure.

One of my first assignments was to accompany Jan Hagland, the paper’s well-informed oil reporter, to the ONS oil show in the city. Seeing the dimensions, exhibits, technology and international setting was an overwhelming experience.

I appreciated that this was something big, really big. Not only was the exhibition site itself large, but something even greater could be sensed – like an omen of a new era.

One of the first people we met was no less a personage than Arne Rettedal, Stavanger’s legendary mayor, at the head of his delegation.

Hagland introduced me, and explained afterwards what a key role Rettedal had played in the city’s development as an oil centre and for the country as a whole. He was an example of what we can call a “west Norwegian Conservative” – not very ideological, but all the more practical and dynamic.

Results are what count, rather than principles and craftiness. And results there were. Stavanger experienced huge growth, and was quickly transformed from a slightly run-down canning town into an international oil city.

Illustration: Roar Hagen

“We’ll undoubtedly reach agreement on Statoil in the end ...” Statoil was the subject of heated arguments in the Conservative government headed by Kåre Willoch (centre) during the early 1980s. Stavanger’s Arne Rettedal (right) strongly opposed a privati-sation of the state oil company, which would quickly have been sold abroad.

 

In the years which followed, I met a number of very interesting players. Hagland and I were invited, for example, on a boat trip to Ryfylke north of Stavanger when Statoil president Arve Johnsen wanted to show Mexico’s petroleum minister one of the giant concrete platforms being built.

In particular, I recall standing in the bows while Johnsen pointed at the huge columns and said: “Look, what a triumph for Norwegian technology.”

I have seldom heard anything so visionary and optimistic. My thought was that this man wanted to achieve something for himself – for Norway and for society.

Eventually, I had the pleasure of drawing portraits of such notables as Fredrik Hagemann, director general of the NPD, geologist Farouk Al-Kasim, and petroleum ministers Bjartmar Gjerde and Kåre Kristiansen (who was said to get on particularly well with the Arabs).

Among others were Konrad B Knutsen, governor of Rogaland county, unionist Lars Anders Myhre, and engineer and Norwegian oil pioneer Olav K Christiansen. That was a fantastic time, with room for groundbreakers.

Those who were sufficiently clearsighted and visionary to see the potential of the NCS were naturally also highly interesting people who helped to shape Norway’s future.

“Viewed in retrospect, I would say that the features they
had in common – apart from enthusiasm – were their grasp of the political decisions which made this possible, and their ability in their different ways to see themselves in a wider perspective.”

 

At least at that time.

The Norwegian oil sector eventually moved into a more mature phase. Safety and technology were much improved, routines were tightened up, and Norway also became a substantial gas supplier. The oil age became normality.

A visit to an oil platform provides a lifelong memory for those us lucky enough to have had this experience – the helicopter flight out, the safety precautions, the people on board and the dimensions.

For most Norwegians, oil and gas are a kind of abstraction far out to sea which provide a huge cash flow to be shared out and managed.

Fortunately, a few farsighted politicians have ensured that part of the cash is diverted into the petroleum fund – a kind of reflex from Norway’s old Protestant national character.

Even if this has become somewhat less dominant, it calls for prudence in all things, and for putting resources aside to cope with hard times.

Nevertheless, the oil money flows into every nook and cranny of society, and foreigners regard Norway today with a mixture of envy, amazement, respect and a little laughter.

Illustration: Roar Hagen

“Blow me if it isn’t time for lunch” – a comment on Norway’s new values. Norwegians have allegedly become more concerned with lunch and holidays than work – clearly.

 

The environmental aspect has come much more to the fore over time – although not so much with regard to oil itself, since Norwegians believe they can deal with blowouts and spills.

Attention has focused instead on the consequences of burning fossil fuels, which almost certainly contributes to global warming. That has led to a very vigorous debate in Norway, which is hardly surprising given the dominance of its oil sector.

Much of what gets said is sensible, and the industry has been doing a lot to become more environmentally aware. But some aspects are directly laughable, such as the political notion of running offshore installations with power from shore.

In order to delay burning Norwegian gas until it reaches other countries and thereby reduce national carbon emissions, the country is building monster pylons in its finest landscapes.

Carbon dioxide, of course, recognises no frontiers. And burning represents the major application for natural gas, which is seen as environment-friendly in most countries.

Such ideas naturally have many amusing outcomes in Norwegian politics. The country lives off petroleum, but has a difficult relationship with it – and with gas in particular. So it end up with a form of national split personality.

 

Illustration: Roar Hagen

Norway’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has been coloured by the two countries’ shared interests. While staying outside Opec, the Norwegians have fre-quently hoped that the oil sheikhs would limit production and thereby keep prices high. Hardly surprising, then, that all Norwegian petroleum ministers must make an obligatory pilgrimage to the Arabian peninsula.

 

I am pleased to have been given the opportunity to reflect my nation’s oil history through an anniversary exhibition at the Norwegian Petroleum Museum.

Technology, economics and the environment have been and remain the three main elements I use constantly, first in Stavanger Aftenblad and later in Oslo daily VG.

Being able to meet some of the people behind this miracle of Norwegian history is fantastic, and I cannot deny being a little proud over what the country has accomplished.

A long thread runs from the first prehistoric people who settled Norway’s coast to the present advanced Norwegian-built special ships, the offshore installations, the drilling engineers and the specialists at sea and on land.

In my view, this heritage of maritime know-how has never been broken. The country has also had some farsighted politicians who took the right steps when its future was shaped.

The Norwegian oil age may have peaked, but it is not over, and the experience acquired should be applicable to new opportunities in the future.

It is a privilege to be allowed to contribute to this story about Norway. Cartoons are my way of telling the tale.

 

Illustration: Roar Hagen

“What if this doesn’t last ...?” The offshore industry has undo-ubtedly had an impact on the Norwegian national character.