The 18th May 2016 was just an ordinary Wednesday for most. But for the petroleum industry in the Arctic, it was the “start of a new chapter“.
If Arctic oil were a fiction novel it would make a particularly dark drama, with no shortage of tragic irony. Sadly it is a very real threat – and it certainly does not need a new chapter.
In fact the whole oily saga has been overly drawn out for several decades and the plot is looking thiner and thiner. Shell pulled out of the Arctic last year with their tail between their legs. Oil production in Norway has halved since the turn of the century. Crude oil prices have plummeted to less than half its June 2014 levels. And earlier this year a bunch of big oil companies, including Conoco Philips and Shell, quietly relinquished claims they once hoped would net the next big oil discovery in Alaskan waters.
Despite the downward trend, a new chapter for the industry has been proclaimed by Norwegian Minister for petroleum and energy, Tord Lien. He was talking about a new set of Arctic drilling licences his government had just granted to 13 oil companies.
This is particularly frustrating as there have been a number of hopeful signals recently. Just a month before the licences were granted the world’s leaders signed on to a global deal to limit global warming. And even more recently the Prime Minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, signed a deal with Obama committing to sustainable development in the Arctic. It looks like the Norwegian oil industry missed the memo.
Activists from the Greenpeace Arctic Sunrise protest the oil drilling operations of the Austrian OMV in the Arctic Ocean near Bear Island. The banner reads : “No Arctic Oil”.
This is not just about politicians; there are plenty of unpleasant corporate characters involved too. Take the CEO of Chevron, John Watson, whose company has just been granted licence to drill in the most northerly oil bloc ever opened in the Norwegian Arctic. He is looking at the bright side, this month saying that global warming could be good for business. He is banking on an increase in gas production, rather than a transition to renewables.
This interminable effort to cling on to Arctic oil for as long as possible is a particularly poor plot for Norway, a country so proud of its progressive reputation. But there could be a twist, bringing some light to this Nordic Noir. A coalition of civil society organisations, demonstrating a lot more nous and imagination than their government, are calling for the licences to be reviewed in light of a constitutional right to a healthy environment. Greenpeace are now in conversations about whether this argument could even go to court. This development could prove a serious spanner in the works for the government and oil companies, who had planned to start exploratory drilling as soon as next year.
So nothing is yet fixed and there are some great opportunities for some awesome closing scenes. Enter the wild sea winds, the stuff of Nordic legends, and the daylight that radiates for 24 hours in the Arctic summer. Arctic oil dead in the water; a love affair with renewable energy awakened. For Norway, and for the whole world, the future remains unwritten, and it’s those of us alive today who will determine the next chapter.
A view from the deck of the Arctic Sunrise as it set sail from Tromsø, Norway to confront Arctic oil drillers.
Sophie Allain is an Arctic Campaigner with Greenpeace International
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