Myth-busters

01.12.2015
Dickens?” chuckles Aslak, who is now head of the National Library of Norway. “This pub has gained far too big a place in Stavanger’s local history.

| Bjørn Rasen and Morten Berentsen (photo)

Eldar (left) and Aslak Myhre.

Different perceptions.
Eldar (left) and Aslak Myhre are surprised by fellow Norwegians who believe the welfare state will persist even if the oil disappears. “The problem in Norway today is that we’ve forgotten that you need a cow if you’re going to have milk.”

 

“It’s become a persistent myth. When I grew up, Dickens was a place where fans of the local Viking football team took a beer before a home game – and another if the club won.”

The point of choosing one of Stavanger’s oldest pubs for a chat with him and his trade unionist father is that reminiscences flow more freely around a table there.

This was allegedly one of the old hot spots where oil news was discussed, and where roughnecks and divers were recruited to new jobs during their time ashore.

“I don’t think so many problems were resolved exactly here,” Eldar adds. “Other things went on. The Skjenkestuen bar came later, and was more where that happened.”

Another myth, concerning heated political discussions around the kitchen table in the Myhre home, is just as effectively crushed.

“Like other people, we were interested in getting to work or school, everyday concerns,” says Aslak. “We didn’t hold any political seminars at home.”

A hectic programme of union meetings often kept Eldar out late. The home was an oasis to relax in. It was important not to bring the job home.

“I was otherwise up an hour earlier than Aslak, of course, and only had the cat for company. We never quarrelled. Dinner was eaten there, obviously, but we didn’t discuss the oil industry in particular.”

But Aslak admits that things did happen at home, as he notes in his book Herskap og tjenere (Upstairs, Downstairs) when trying to describe everyday life.

“I well remember coming home to find Dad lying there with an injured shoulder. I was young, and have never forgotten it. I read that people were injured, and when I got older somebody died.”

That was at Rosenberg Verft, which turned in the late 1970s from building tankers to fabricating platforms for the oil industry and where Eldar worked.

“What did matter was who won the contracts,” Eldar emphasises. “The crucial question was whether the work went to us at Rosenberg or to Aker Stord [further north].”

 

Rosenberg verft

Rosenberg Verft.
Building the Statfjord B topsides around 1980.
(Photo: Rein Øverland/Norwegian Petroleum Museum)

 

Heavy engineering is politics, then as now. Aslak’s past as chair of the Red Electoral Alliance must have been an issue at home, no matter how early they got up or how late they returned. Aslak firmly denies that he grew up in a “political seminar”, where his parents tried to mould his views – although he admits to having been influenced.

“But if Dad or Mum had tried to get me to think something, they’d have got nowhere. My own political activity was shaped in quite different arenas.

“It undoubtedly reflected what I experienced at home, and our standpoints are pretty similar. But my views weren’t shaped by my family.

“It was important to emphasise that they were my own. I got an earful once when I reported that one of my friends was an anarchist, so that was perhaps where the line was drawn.

“I saw what Dad and Mum were doing, and that it meant something. I was proud of it. But I don’t think I ever told Dad that.” He smiles as he meets Eldar’s quizzical look.

Aslak has been used to speaking out since boyhood. His grandparents had a house in the Ryfylke region north of Stavanger, which he often visited with his parents.

Equipped with a Norwegian flag on a long pole, he joined his grandfather in the local parade on 17 May, Norway’s Constitution Day.

He was happy to do so, but thought the event was little tame and ended up giving a speech from a big rock. But it was far from a conventional appeal to national sentiment.

“It must surely have been the only 17 May speech in inner Ryfylke which demanded a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan or the USA out of Nicaragua,” Aslak recalls.

“Or which rejected both superpowers, and called for free nursery places for all children and – not least – for a six-hour working day with full pay compensation.”

Eldar found he had an active son who did well on every front, and who eventually acquired his own authority. At 19, Aslak went to university in Bergen and “it was liberating for him not to be identified everywhere as my son.”

Aslak nods. Bergen was a different world and the move was crucial for his political engagement.

“When Aslak became a media figure, I felt I had to reduce my own exposure a little,” adds Eldar. “That was a conscious decision on my part.”

Fifty years after the first licensing round on the NCS was announced, the place of oil and gas in Norway’s public debate has changed. More of that later. The question for the Myhres is what should survive from this first half-century of petroleum activity.

Aslak notes that the 1970s and 1980s were childhood memories for him, but that he saw “a radical change in the way oil was talked and written about into the 1990s.” That became even more noticeable in the 2000s.

“During the 1980s, the discussion focused a lot on contracts, jobs and production by the companies, while oil company finances are at the centre of attention today,” he notes.

Eldar agrees with him to a degree. He observes that few people in the early days had any perception of the industry’s scope and the significance it would have for society’s development.

“The majors were here, of course, and we knew they were large in a world context. But that we would build up a company [Statoil] able to rank alongside the big boys who had arrived here then was beyond our ability to imagine at the time.

“But it’s happened, and we’ve acquired step by step the know- how we initially had to fetch from abroad. Today, we’re delivering expertise to others. The changes are massive and colossal revenues have been generated.”

In his view, the most evident changes are to be found in the self- confidence, self-belief, mood and temper among Stavanger residents.

Most locals earlier felt oppressed, and accepted the images of them and their city created in Oslo. “Fights could break out if we ran into someone from eastern Norway. Today we meet people with our dialect everywhere.”

However, Stavanger has been proud of its technology since the early 1970s, with Kværner Rosenberg building seven ground- breaking liquefied natural gas carriers with spherical tanks in 1973-80.

“These were advanced ships developed by Kværner itself, and the company made good money from them,” Eldar says. “Others began building oil platforms, but we saw no future in such primitive structures. That’s why we were late to the table.”

Kværner may have lagged behind initially, but it quickly caught up. And its labour force had to change their work culture to one where directives occupied a more dominant place.

“We built [our first platform] Statfjord B in accordance with plans and manuals, with no room to think for yourself,” Eldar comments. “Statfjord C then involved a number of identical structures. We took the initiative on working in parallel because there were too many people in one place. They carpeted us for that.”

 

Welding on the Kvitebjørn platform.

New jobs.
Welding on the Kvitebjørn platform.
(Photo: Stavanger Aftenblad/Lars Idar Vaage)

 

Statoil later took over from America’s Mobil as Statfjord operator, and the methods changed. Eldar believes that encouraging workers to be creative gives Norwegian yards a competitive edge.

Aslak agrees that his father is onto something interesting. “Progress since Statfjord C in 1983, when we were well into the oil era, has been massive.

“The technology changes from manuals to something the world hasn’t seen before, and becomes Norway’s biggest export industry after oil and gas.

“Is this development recognised by Norwegians at all? Is that where it stops? We built platforms and developed fields. Then we got b****y rich. And today it’s a climate problem.”

With reference to the growing number of NCS facilities built at Asian yards, he believes company executives and politicians in Norway have lost something of the plot along the way – they think a supplies industry is unnecessary, the country can simply sit on top and administer.

In his view, Norway risks losing that element which concerns industrial development and a national approach to working, with a short distance between engineers and skilled workers, between North Sea and yard, and to Statoil.

“If that element isn’t any longer something you recognise about what’s happened in Norway, you don’t understand the future, you don’t take this experience with you.

“What we take with us from this period is not only a matter of writing history, but also a question of the foundation we lay for tomorrow’s developments.”

He points to Statoil, “which says openly that it’s building long-term expertise in South Korea. It ‘knows’ it’ll get shortcomings and follow-up work.

“That’s an absurd approach because Statoil wants, as I understand it, somebody out there to know something in the future.”

Eldar says that the idea of outsourcing work to east Asia arose in the 1980s, with China as the location because it was well organised and could offer cheap solutions.

“As time passes, living standards rise and everything gets more expensive,” he observes. “And we dismantle our own expertise and industry.”

The pair have almost inexhaustible views about Rosenberg. The yard has meant a lot for Stavanger as an industrial town and oil capital.

Aslak believes it also marks the biggest difference between his home town, Bergen and Oslo. “All three have been industrial centres,” he points out. “Bergen has had Laksevåg and Solviken, in Stavanger it was Rosenberg and canning.

“When I moved from Stavanger, everyone could see a platform at the quay or out in the fjord. Not only at Rosenberg, but also the Condeep shafts in Jåttåvågen and mobile units in for repair.”

Rigs were laid up in the Ryfylke fjords, he recalls. The mayor of Stavanger could see a platform or rig from his office every day.

Bergen shut down what it had while he was living there. And Oslo has not seen industry since its shipyard was converted into the Aker Brygge residential and entertainment district.

“The fact that Rosenberg has been and still is in operation means three things. Many people have worked there, several thousand at peak.

“They have spouses and children, and families who live from it. That naturally provides income for the town, but it also affects people mentally – how they perceive their city.

“Former Conservative mayor Leif Johan Sevland once said that converting the Rosenberg site to any other industry would be out of the question as long as he remained in office.

“His counterparts in Bergen and Oslo would never have dreamt of saying something similar. Stavanger thought of itself as an industrial city. That gives it an advantage today. Anyone can make money in the financial sector during a boom.”

Eldar praises the local council for backing the preservation of Stavanger’s industrial base, “while the Oslo councillors responsible for business development maintained it was no place for manufacturing. They wanted to build homes. Doing away with industry was seen as progress.”

He believes that industrial activity should not be written off, and recalls the struggle a few years back to raise NOK 70 million in order to save Rosenberg.

The yard was subsequently sold to Australia’s WorleyParsons for NOK 1.1 billion, he notes. “That says something about the potential which some people see and others don’t.”

Eldar has become increasingly impressed with “the little band of politicians and industrialists who laid the basis for Norway’s organisation of a future oil industry when none of them had seen a picture of what it would become”.

Norway had experience of power-intensive industry, and took much of its model from there. “Without that, we’d have become like any other oil nation.

“That’s what makes us distinctive, with oil as something which benefits the whole of our society rather than being milked by a few big fish.”

 

Eldar (left) and Aslak Myhre.

Heartfelt.
That Stavanger as a town has kept the Rosenberg Verft yard distinguishes Norway’s oil capital from the former industrial cities of Bergen and Oslo, says Aslak Myhre. His father Eldar agrees. People in Stavanger have always seen platforms and vessels at the quay or in the yard. That brings them closer to this important industry. In Bergen and Oslo, they build flats instead.

 

Impressed

One question is then why the big picture has not been more strongly imprinted on the national memory and the public debate about the oil and gas industry’s significance for the country.

Asked whether he feels good books on that subject are lacking, Aslak replies that Ryfylke-born author Kjartan Fløgstad has said something interesting about this.

“Mainland industries have their writers, he observed, but not the oil sector to any extent. The North Sea was inaccessible, while everyone ashore has a relationship to industry there.

“Fløgstad tried to get offshore for 30 years, until BP managed to get him out. It’s not been easy from an author’s perspective. [Fellow novelist] Karl Ove Knausgård worked on building concrete platforms, but has clearly learnt nothing at all about the oil industry. How that’s possible is a mystery to me.”

“What we have now are climate-driven demands to dismantle the oil industry,” says Eldar. Who, then, is the sinner – the oil companies which produce or the government which wants them to? Or the consumers who depend entirely on petroleum products?

“Is this a question of sin? I don’t accept that,” responds Aslak.

“We could hold a debate on that,” adds Eldar. “The problem in Norway today is that we’ve forgotten that you need a cow if you’re going to have milk.

“A lot of people seem to think we can have a country like it is today – but without oil. That’s not credible, and we’re not going to stop the flow.

“What we do in Norway isn’t for Norwegian consumption, but for a global market. And if we’re not in it, somebody else will take our place.

“We Norwegians are perhaps out to obtain absolution for our sins, rather than achieve practical change. At least it wasn’t us who did it, they’ll say. That we produced this with lower emissions than anyone else isn’t even regarded as an argument.”

“Amen,” interjects Aslak, and has been fired up by his father’s comments.

“Do we take politics seriously or not?” he says. “This is presented as if it’s a big ethical argument for the future of the world, but it’s often about positioning in a Norwegian political conversation.

“This isn’t about political consequences, realities or whether it means something for Norway, after all. It’s just a matter of positioning.

“Like the comment by finance minister Siv Jensen that she’s not sure whether all climate change is caused by human activity. As if what she says means anything.

“The questions you have to ask must be about what she might or might not do. What are her policies – that’s what will have consequences.”

He asks whether Norway has become so rich that it no longer needs a milch cow. “The paradox of the discussion is that, as long as you have a cow, you can afford to lose money elsewhere.

“We have an oil fund worth NOK 7 000 billion – or something insanely large. We can even invest in something we could eventually earn money from.”

Aslak recalls returning from a demonstration against gasfired power at Kollsnes north of Bergen in 1997. The discussion was whether wind energy could replace petroleum.

“I thought we could swap the two. You can do that in a Soviet style economy where you don’t have to make money. It’s not possible in a capitalist system where you must sooner or later show a profit.

“One depends on the other – that’s a banal economic understanding which I didn’t have then. If you fail to take this into account, I can’t take it seriously. It’s just layman’s talk.”

He wants to see a better debate on the Norwegian oil and gas industry – an open discussion rather than one with the terms set by a few and other arguments unwelcome. That is often the case in Norway today, he claims.

“When you sit anywhere – classroom, boardroom, library – there’s always an underlying consensus about what you’re all saying.

“It’s almost never explicit, but simply lies there as the basic terms of the discussion. Unless you question that basis, you’ll end up like the others within a few days, weeks, months or years. That’s how socialisation works.

“What I’ve seen with Dad, from the time we went to buy a bike when I was little until he was a worker director of Kværner, was his refusal to accept these terms.

“That was allied to an ability to ask the questions which are right viewed from outside, but are b****y uncomfortable for insiders – because they challenge the basis of the whole conversation.

“I try to stick with this way of thinking and daring to speak out even if it can be a bit uncomfortable. See now, that’s made Dad proud.”

 

Norwegian Continental Shelf no.2-2015

Main page - Contents
Bente Nyland on the NCS: Glass is half-full
The interview: Petroleum minister calls on companies to invest
Thinking outside the box made Maria’s development possible
Special report: 50 years
Norway’s offshores sector safer than before
Safety carries a cost
Seeking to cut documentation NPD profile: Diskos database crucial for exploration success
Making huge volumes of offshore data available
Adding up to acclaim
Rockshot: Tight formations
Geology: Many benefits for society
www.norskpetroleum.no: Find facts about the NCS