Norway and the United States ― both among the world’s top oil and gas producers ― are taking radically different steps, just days apart, in response to industry pressure.
Over the weekend, politicians in Norway dealt a major blow to their country’s powerful oil industry when the opposition Labor Party — Norway’s biggest political group and a traditional oil backer — said it would no longer support oil exploration off the Lofoten islands, a remote and biodiverse archipelago in the Arctic region.
As Bloomberg noted, there’s now a solid majority in the Norwegian parliament that opposes drilling in the Lofoten area, making oil development around the archipelago very unlikely. Norway, Western Europe’s largest oil and gas producer, appears to be “walking away from billions of barrels of oil and gas,” Bloomberg said.
Meanwhile, in the United States, President Donald Trump plans to sign two executive orders on Wednesday aimed at expediting new oil and gas pipelines, and limiting the ability of state regulators to obstruct such projects.
The orders would “help American energy companies avoid unnecessary red tape,” The Washington Post quoted the White House as saying. Environmentalists immediately slammed the planned orders as “disastrous,” while representatives for the oil and gas industry praised Trump for clearing “the way for development.”
The actions of the two leading industrial nations show how even close allies are responding dramatically differently to industry development, environmental concerns and climate change.
Norway has been taking steps to wean citizens off fossil fuels, even while expanding its petroleum exports. The U.S., led by Trump (who considers global warming a hoax) and his industry-connected environmental officials, has been scrapping environmental regulations and working to thwart renewable energy and expand fossil fuel consumption.
Norway’s Lofoten archipelago is home to one of the world’s largest cod and herring stocks, as well as the globe’s biggest cold-water coral reef. It also boasts some of Europe’s largest sea bird colonies, pods of sperm whales and killer whales, and thousands of species of fish, marine mammals and other creatures.
The oil and gas industry has been eyeing the archipelago for potential development for years. The oil resources beneath the islands have been estimated at between 1.3 billion and 3 billion barrels of oil, worth up to $65 billion.
The Labor Party’s decision to oppose drilling in the area drew a sharp rebuke from the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association, whose chief said the industry was “surprised and disappointed.”
Environmentalists, who have long been urging the Norwegian government to permanently ban drilling near Lofoten, lauded the announcement. Some, however, were more measured in their reaction, noting that Norway ― which still counts oil and gas as its largest export ― continues to drill for oil elsewhere, including in other areas in the Arctic.
“For more than a decade we have been advocating for [Norway’s Labor Party] to stand on the right side of history and vote to protect one of the world’s most vulnerable and unique marine areas against oil and gas development,” Norwegian environmentalist Ingrid Skjoldvaer said in a statement. “[This] victory stands as a shining symbol of the sustainable future we are fighting for.”
No such victory is being celebrated by environmental activists in the U.S., who have lambasted Trump’s impending executive orders to speed up the construction of oil and gas pipelines, and curb the authority of states over such projects.
“This is a disastrous idea, one that exposes the hypocrisy of the Trump administration and threatens to undercut the ability of state leaders to determine how best to protect their rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands,” the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement Tuesday.
As CNN noted, one of Trump’s executive orders will direct the Environmental Protection Agency to review and update the way states can use the Clean Water Act, which regulates pollutants in the nation’s waterways, when deciding whether to approve pipelines. States, including New York and Washington, have used the federal law to block such projects in the past.
A senior Trump administration official said on Tuesday that there have been “a lot of problems” with the way the Clean Water Act has been interpreted by states. The executive order will “alleviate” some of those issues, the official said, according to CNN.
The order will also reportedly change some Transportation Department rules, including allowing natural gas to be shipped by rail and tanker truck.
The second executive order, which deals specifically with cross-border energy projects, will clarify that the president is “solely responsible” for issuing or denying cross-border permits for pipelines and other infrastructure, the Post reported.
Decades of legal precedent and possible regulatory challenges may mean that Trump’s orders may not be as effective at expediting pipeline projects as he hopes, some observers suggested.
Still, the oil and gas industry applauded the president’s move.
“When states say ‘no’ to the development of natural gas pipelines, they force utilities to curb safe and affordable service and refuse access to new customers including new businesses,” Karen Harbert, head of the American Gas Association, told The Wall Street Journal in a statement. “These executive orders clear the way for development.”