Norway's debate about arctic oil exploration is farcical.
Climate debate put on ice
Klassekampen, 15 May 2020
While oil prices in the USA dropped below zero, the Norwegian government clung to the fossil fuel-driven economy. Airline companies that fly nowhere and oil companies that cannot get rid of their oil will receive tens of billions of dollars in tax benefits and favorable loans – without any significant demand to become more sustainable. What would have been an excellent opportunity to find an alternative to an economy kept afloat by oil, by creating green jobs, has quickly disappeared from sight.
I am not surprised. It is typical for a government that does not really want a greener economy and rather frustrates the public debate on this topic than learns something from it. As a result, the climate is the loser from the outset. But because the government keeps up the appearance of a fair debate, they can pretend to have taken the climate seriously while dismissing on procedural grounds.
Take, for example, the discussion about the edge of the sea ice in the Barents Sea, the marginal ice zone. This transition from pack ice to open water is a valuable and fragile ecosystem, but it is also an area where there may exist large oil reserves. These interests need to be weighed against each other, and at first glance the environment seems to be the main focus of this debate while expert advice is receiving a lot of attention. Knowledge has been requested about the vulnerable animal and plant species that depend on the ice – such as polar bears, seals, seabirds, but also tiny plankton. Together, they form a unique ecosystem that must be protected by not allowing oil extraction too far into the marginal ice zone.
However, the advice on where this limit should be set varies considerably. From a limit where sea ice occurs about 30% of the time during the month of April, to a limit where sea ice occurs only 0.5% of the time. Ultimately, as with so many political compromises, the border was defined somewhere in the middle. The oil industry is allowed to search for oil in an area where sea ice occurs 15% of the time in April. Because that border is further south than what the Norwegian government unsuccessfully proposed in 2015, they present this outcome as a victory for nature. For the sake of convenience, it is not mentioned that the new boundary has been drawn in such a way that only those areas that the oil industry does not find interesting will be protected.
But that's not the only reason why the ice front debate is one big farce. Yes, this ecosystem needs to be protected, but that is not going to happen by keeping oil extraction just outside of it. Research has shown that for every megaton of CO2 that’s emitted, three square kilometers of sea ice will melt away. Oil extraction is disastrous for the ecosystems of the polar region no matter what, a region where the climate is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the world – in part due to the disappearing sea ice.
For every megaton of CO2 emitted, a square kilometer of sea ice disappears
It is a brilliant and cunning diversion. Because the debate about oil extraction in the Barents Sea is so strongly concentrated around the concept of the ice front, the real debate is avoided: whether oil extraction should take place at all. That premise has already been accepted within the discussion framework. Moreover, the research on the marginal ice zone is really useful for the oil industry: not to protect fragile ecosystems, but from the purely practical need to know where there is too much ice to allow for oil extraction.
Compared to the hypocrisy surrounding the marginal ice zone, it was outright honest when the Norwegian governing party "Høyre" made climate subordinate to employment in its new electoral program – because of the corona crisis. But it is a false dilemma to say that climate and employment are opposites. Now is the time to accelerate, not delay, the transition to a sustainable economy. By creating new green jobs, we can combat the unprecedented unemployment created by the corona crisis. That's a transition that Norway has to go through anyway, before oil extraction is no longer profitable.
At the end of this month, there is an opportunity for the government to put forward its greenest leg when it presents measures to pull the greening of the economy through the corona crisis. Unfortunately, it is already clear that these measures will be razor thin. A few crumbs for more research, and some investments in cleaner energy and transportation. Just enough to say nice words about the climate, but it pales in comparison to the support for the climate-polluting industries.
The climate debate is paralyzed by fallacies and smoke curtains, to maintain a system that harms nature, the climate and therefore ultimately ourselves. The correct question and open discussion should be: who does this system still serve?
This text originally appeared in Klassekampen on 15 May 2020