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17/12/2007 Public discussion of the oil industry in Norway is far too limited, believes Åslaug Haga. In her first three months as petroleum and energy minister, she has done her best to liven up the debate.
Text: Eldbjørg Vaage Melberg, Photo: Jan Inge Haga
“It’s quite fantastic what this sector contributes to the country,” Ms Haga affirms. “It lays the basis for our prosperity – yet we don’t talk much about it. This industry looks very different from Stavanger than it does from my home in Ås south of Oslo.”
She adds that many appear to believe offshore production is a very simple business. Oil flows out of a tap in the North Sea, and the cash rolls in.
In her view, lack of discussion breeds ignorance. People fail to see how advanced and environmentally sound this business is. When the public lacks knowledge, the industry becomes less robust in confronting challenges.
“Today, the petroleum sector is being strongly challenged by the climate debate,” Ms Haga notes. “The world needs energy, and demand just keeps on rising.
“The absence of debate in Norway means that many people don’t understand this. There’s no possibility of developing alternative and renewable energy so quickly that the poorest countries can achieve the economic growth we want them to have.
“But we must produce oil and gas in the most environmentally acceptable way. We’ll devote all our resources, expertise and money to developing renewables, but the world will remain dependent on petroleum for many decades to come.
“Listening to the environmental organisations, you could almost get the impression that the best thing for the planet would be to shut down the whole Norwegian oil business.
“A few too many voices are calling for the taps to be turned off. That’s an absurd demand, which must be countered in a serious way.”
Ms Haga says that such a move would be tantamount to Norway informing large parts of the world that they will not be allowed to develop themselves.
The western nations are pulling up the ladder after them, she maintains, and then telling several billion people it is a pity they are so behind in their development – the climate cannot cope with extending western prosperity to them.
“I must say it was a positive surprise to discover how much the petroleum business has involved itself in the environmental debate,” the minister observes.
“The industry is very environmentally aware, and its ability to communicate this is important. A lot is being done to develop environmental expertise and technology.
“Norway’s oil sector is in the world’s premier division – and must remain there. That’s what the Norwegian people expect.”
Apart from facing up to the environmental debate, Ms Haga says the biggest challenge on the Norwegian continental shelf will be maintaining the level of activity.
“The industry must apply its expertise and technology to producing as much as possible from existing fields. It’s also important to recognise that exploration in new areas must be facilitated. If we’re going to achieve this, most people must understand that it’s sensible and appropriate.”
The management plan for the Barents Sea and the waters off Lofoten calls for increased knowledge of these areas, and the NPD has been commissioned to acquire the necessary seismic data.
This work focuses on identifying possible oil and gas deposits in the Nordland VII and Troms II areas of the Norwegian Sea, off the Lofoten and Vesterålen islands.
In addition, the Seapop research programme aims to increase understanding of seabird populations and the Mareano programme is mapping the seabed.
“Funds for these projects have been appropriated over the central government budget,” Ms Haga points out.
“The information gained will be important for our review of the plan in 2010. “The government takes the view that the management plan strikes a sensible balance between the needs of the environment and the petroleum industry.”
Carbon capture from a planned gas-fired power station at Mongstad north of Bergen has been described by the government as Norway’s “moon landing” project.
But Ms Haga is concerned about the timetable. To meet the schedule for stage one, an investment decision must be taken before next April.
However, the government’s involvement in the carbon capture scheme has caused a headache for the Efta Surveillance Authority (ESA), which polices Norway’s agreement with the European Union.
“Our challenge is that we’re ahead of the EU in getting this project off the ground,” says Ms Haga, who notes that Brussels is strongly committed to carbon capture and storage (CCS).
“The energy commissioner wants us to implement a project as soon as possible, but that represents a challenge in relation to the existing rules.” Ms Haga admits that it is unusual for a member of the Centre Party, which has always been opposed to Norwegian membership of the EU, to express sympathy for the ESA.
“But I can understand that this is difficult. Legal changes are imminent in the EU, but they’re unlikely to be adopted early enough for the decisions needed at Mongstad.
“I hope the ESA will take note of the strong interest in getting this off the ground, and receives support for exercising its judgement over a likely political trend in the union.”
Ms Haga says she is not concerned that the Norwegian petroleum industry operates in countries where standards of human rights are regarded as less than desirable.
“The fact is that oil and gas are largely located in nations not noted for their democratic traditions. But I have no faith in isolation and boycotts as political instruments.
“Apart from South Africa, there are no good examples that such sanctions have worked. On the other hand, many cases show that involvement and commitment yield results.
“So I believe participation by Norwegian companies in a number of these countries is positive because they bring their high ethical and environmental values and attitudes with them. These could become an important competitive advantage in the future.”
Many observers found it surprising that a busy party leader would opt to accept the petroleum and energy portfolio. But Ms Haga says it was a natural choice.
“When my predecessor in this post, Odd Roger Enoksen, resolved to step down, my party debated how our ministerial posts in the coalition government should be allocated.
“We decided that the leader should take on the petroleum and energy job because we wanted a natural base for pursuing stronger action over environmental and climate challenges.”
But Ms Haga emphasises that she was also keen on the post. “I’m interested in this subject, and it’s fun to work in a field with international ramifications.
“The exciting challenge in this job is to balance Norway’s desire and ambition to be a big energy exporter with a pioneering role in environmental policy.
“In addition, both the Centre Party and I are concerned with the balance between commercial development and environmental challenges.”
Petroleum and energy minister Åslaug Haga has a hectic programme of trips and meetings. She attracted a full house on her visit to the NPD in Stavanger this autumn.