Environment

How lucrative North Sea oil became the front line of battle for the climate

What do the UK and Norway have in common apart from salmon and cold weather? They both have a thriving fossil fuel industry, which puts them at odds with their own net-zero targets

Oil rigs in the sunset

Sunset over Cromarty Firth, Scotland. Image: Ben Wicks on Unsplash

Norway is one of the world’s wealthiest countries, ranked ninth in 2023 out of 44 European nations. Much of its riches come from its particularly fruitful North Sea oil and gas fields: in 2022, Norway exported 1.4m barrels a day, worth almost £140bn through the year, boosting its sovereign wealth fund which sits at well over £1tn.

The UK may not be performing so well economically, but it also exports the majority of its North Sea oil and gas. In 2021, we extracted 53m tonnes of oil from our waters, exported 45m tonnes, then imported another 51 tonnes.

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The recent licensing of the Rosebank oil and gas field off the coast of Scotland has consolidated the UK’s place in the international network of fossil fuel trading. A collaboration between Norwegian state-owned energy giant Equinor, Canada’s Suncor Energy and Britain’s Ithaca Energy will see the extraction of an estimated 300m barrels of oil from 2026 through to 2050, contravening the UK’s self-imposed and legally binding deadline to reach carbon neutrality.

The vast majority of this oil is likely to go directly oversees rather than solve any domestic energy crises.

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In response, Norwegian and British climate activists have been busily strengthening their own connections. Calum Macintyre is a Scottish climate activist living in Norway who is involved with organisations such as Stopp Oljeletinga (Just Stop Oil Norway) and Stop Rosebank.

“In the UK you’ve always had this culture of people stepping up and demanding change. I think in the UK, there’s real distrust of the government and people know that they have to step up and demand stuff if they want things to happen,” Macintyre told the Big Issue.

“There’s also a very different media landscape in the UK – a right-wing media that is really divisive and makes climate activists look bad. In Norway, you don’t have that. The media is all a bit down the centre.”

Macintyre believes activists need to draw inspiration from the pioneers of the past, like the Suffragettes getting the vote for women and the civil rights campaigners who ended South African Apartheid.

“They disrupted the normal way of life to put their issue to the top of the political agenda,” he said. “All the things that we take for granted now, that’s how they were won. It does work. I think we’ve been too nice in the climate movement. The reason that everyone’s been so nice is because we’ve never really fully understood how serious it is.”

But the very act of protest is itself under threat in the UK, where the government has passed restrictive legislation on the right to organise. The Public Order Act 2023 allows greater constraints on “static” demonstrations, and places rigid regulations on location, number of participants and length of time.

Emma Brown, a member of Just Stop Oil and Stop Rosebank, has been arrested for taking part in civil disobedience. Search her name online and the first result is an article calling her a “zealot”.

“There are two challenges that a lot of people face,” says Brown. “There are the legal issues, and it gives you a lot of empathy for people going through the legal system or being put in prison. You get to see the inhuman side of the state. But I think the more challenging thing is the social sacrifice.

“When you’re doing this kind of work, sometimes people might completely distance themselves from you, or cut you off. That sort of social punishment is often worse than the legal ramifications. But I’ve seen through time that really change. Now a lot of my family and friends are very supportive.”

Brown agrees with Macintyre that to tackle a global crisis, activists have to coordinate their activities, learn from each other and work as one. Britain and Norway may be divided by the North Sea, but in their damaging environmental polices around North Sea oil, they are inextricably united.

Melanie Goldberg is part of The Big Issue Breakthrough team.

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