The sale of oil and gas has been highly lucrative for Norway - but should it continue?

The Scandinavian giant has kept itself afloat amid economic turbulence with a steady flow of natural resources - but is this nature-loving nation prepared to promote growth at all costs?

 Lofoten.
Norway's Arctic archipelago Lofoten is a potential drilling site. Photograph: Getty Images.

The recent Norwegian elections have taken the country in a conservative direction. While talk of cost cutting, limits to immigration and religious education reform are at the forefront of the political discourse, the national energy debate is proving problematic for the new coalition government. Reconciling Norway’s all-encompassing apprecation of the natural world with the desire to export gas and oil supplies is proving difficult, forcing the parties to ask themselves which matters more: growth or the environment?

The new blue-blue coalition government, elected this September, has already begun a reversal of some key Norwegian ideologies, turning to privatisations, tax breaks and welfare cuts. The coalition, made up of the Conservative Party (Høyre) and the far-right, anti-immigration (ironically named) Progression Party (Fremskrittspartiet), came to power following the previous Labour government’s nine-year term. Most attributed the change to an overwhelming apathy towards the inclumbent government: they hadn’t done anything wrong, they’d just been there for a while. Although Norway managed to dodge the recession with the help of huge oil and gas reserves (and high taxes), the shift in attitude seemed to mimic corresponding shifts across Europe: fear of potential economic downfall resulting in an abrupt reversion to right-wing policy.

Norway’s attitude to nature is deeply entrenched. Even in the capital city, Oslo, access to nature is easy and encouraged. Lakes, mountains and ski resorts are close by and can be reached by train. Buildings can only be built to a certain height, to avoid overdevelopment. Recycling is strictly enforced, even in student housing and in the most built-up areas. Norway continues to be hugely under-populated, boasting large unspoilt landscapes. To be solitary seems to be an essential tenet of Norwegian life, and to be solitary in nature is the epitome of this.

Norway’s ability to maintain its sparsely populated city and untouched natural resources has been largely due to its huge North Sea oil and gas reserves. In 2011, Norway was the 8th largest exporter of oil in the world, as well as the 2nd largest exporter of gas, maintaining its status as the 4th richest country (per capita) in the word, according to the International Monetary Fund. At the same time, Norway aspires to commit to renewable energy, though this ambition is proving difficult. The country's primary energy source is hydroelectric power (95 per cent, in fact). Norway is ranked 30th in the 2008 list of countries by carbon dioxide emissions per capita, and has yet to achieve its ambition of cutting its emissions by 30 per cent.

Norway faces a dilemma when it comes to energy. It’s exportation of oil and gas causes a huge number of carbon emissions, almost 500 million tonnes. For a country that is in no way struggling financially, even compared to its western neighbours, the government still wants to increase exports of these natural goods - increasing its carbon footprint. The current blue-blue government coalition is desperate to drill for oil in areas of northern Norway such as Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja, but have had to make a deal with the minor parties on the right side not to explore these areas in order to gain a majority. The areas are both very beautiful, and extremely vulnerable, due to the narrowness of the fjords and the harsh climate in those areas, meaning that the risk is higher than drilling in open sea. The potential damage is devastating.

The sale of oil and gas has been wildly lucrative for Norway. A recent article in Aftenposten reported that the “net present value of revenues” from oil and gas in Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja would be 1,925 billion Kroner (about 188 billion British Pounds). If there’s anything that’s going to convince you to destroy some natural habitat, 188 billion pounds is probably it.

It’s clear to see why the government is so keen to drill, but the Norwegian attitude to nature coupled with the smaller parties’ commitment to the environment might delay excavation. It appears that for the next four years, the ecological moral values of most Norwegian citizens, as well as the fjords, will remain untouched.