STAVANGER, Norway – North Sea oil and gas has helped make Norway one of the wealthiest countries in the world. But as Norwegians head to the polls today, fears about climate change have put the future of the industry at the top of the campaign agenda.
The ruling Conservatives, led by Prime Minister Erna Solberg, and the opposition Labor Party, which is leading in opinion polls, both advocate for a gradual move away from the fossil fuels that continue to underpin the economy.
But the larger parties rarely rule alone in Norway; smaller players are usually required to build a majority coalition, and they can have an outsize influence on the government agenda. Some are demanding a more radical severing with the country's dominant industry and income stream.
“Our demand is to stop looking for oil and gas, and stop handing out new permits to companies,” says Lars Haltbrekken, climate and energy spokesman for the Socialist Left party – a likely coalition partner for Labor. He claims that after eight years in charge the government is protecting a status quo at a time when the country is thirsty for a post-oil future.
A report in August from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicting global floods and fires created a wave in Norway that has crested throughout this election campaign.
It is also forcing Norwegians to wrestle with a paradox at the heart of their society.
With their hydro-powered energy grid and electric cars, they are among the world's most enthusiastic consumers of green power, but decades of exporting oil and gas means this nation of 5.3 million enjoys a generous welfare buffer, and sits on the world's largest sovereign wealth fund.
Tina Bru, the Oil and Energy Minister, says it's unthinkable that the country should force an end to the country's biggest industry, which is responsible for over 40% of exports and directly employs more than 5% of the workforce.
She agrees with a report highlighted by the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association, an industry group, that says an end to Norwegian production would have a net negative effect on global emissions. Demand would stay the same, and cleaner Norwegian production would be replaced by other countries with higher emissions, she says. She prefers a longer-term approach that focuses on demand.