The oil kid

hollandmarigoldOil and Offshore

Nov 8, 2013 (4 years and 8 months ago)


© Forlaget Oktober 2010. Original title: Herskap og tjenere. Translated from the Norwegian by
John Irons and Kari Dixon. No part may be published in book form or electronically or translated into
any other language without a prior written agreement with Aschehoug Agency, P.O.Box 363 Sentrum,
NO-0102 Oslo, Norway ( Foreign rights available from Aschehoug Agency.

Masters and Servants

Aslak Sira Myhre

The oil kid

Where I grew up, we used to check the oil prices and dollar exchange rate in
the newspaper every day. Not because we dreamt of being stockbrokers and
millionaires but rather to reassure ourselves that the future was secure. High
oil prices and good exchange rates meant a further expansion of the oil
industry in the North Sea. New platforms would be towed out to sea for use in
new oilfields. And if new platforms were going to be built, there was a good
chance that my father and two thousand other fathers at the Rosenberg
Shipyard in Stavanger would have work for the next two to three years. It was
the same for all of us – even if your father didn’t work in oil himself, we knew
that he and everyone else who worked, except those who were teachers and
the like, were dependent on the oil industry. We lived in a symbiotic
relationship with the Norwegian economy that I later discovered is unknown
to my friends in the capital. For us, this was something we never questioned.
Oil was just as much a part of our daily lives as Liverpool’s results in the
Premier League or pizza on a Saturday night.
When I was eight, I went with my father, mother and sister to celebrate
the completion of Statfjord B – the first large oil platform to be built entirely
in Stavanger. It was the largest that had ever been made, and would soon be
solely operated by the Norwegian state oil company Statoil. I was proud of my
father because he had helped to build this marvel. He showed me the cramped
shafts where he had lain with his welding torch heating the welds that held the
plates together. He explained to me that it was necessary to heat them in order
to temper the welds to ensure that they were strong enough to withstand the
waves, winds and storms out in the North Sea, where the deck was to stand on
the long concrete legs that Norwegian Contractors had cast a few miles away.
We were not alone on the deck that cold day in March. Rosenberg Shipyard
had invited the whole town to come and celebrate. It was before the profits
from oil had transformed Stavanger into a ‘cultural capital’, before major oil
companies had started to sponsor everything from symphony orchestras to
food festivals and volleyball. When the oil capital celebrated that day in 1981,
it was oil itself and not money that was celebrated. People thronged onto the
deck, and several days later the inhabitants of Stavanger stood lined up on the
hillside to wave at the rig as it was towed out of the fjord, a custom that
continued for most of the 1980s.
At school, we saw documentaries about oil at least once a year, about
how oil could be pressed up from the bottom of the North Sea, with the help of
human toil and new technology. In natural and social sciences, we were taught
how the remains of the huge forests and dinosaurs that had once existed on
the very same seabed were converted into riches for us, and how precious this
process was. We drew rigs in art and sang the popular song ‘Fourteen Days on
the Rig’ in the break.
Oil from the North Sea stood on ornament shelves in Stavanger homes.
Small, sealed glass bottles marked with the name of the company and which
field the oil came from. When they stood side by side, we could see the colour
vary from the pitch-black of Ekofisk and Gullfaks to a more greenish and
bluish from the Statfjord fields. The Ekofisk bottle was the first and most
exclusive, while the Troll, Sleipner and other fields established in the 1990s
were so much later that oil had lost its novelty. The bottles were no longer
paraded as ornaments, but given to the children instead.
We collected everything that had anything to do with oil. In addition to
the oil samples, there were stickers with company logos, models of boats and
rigs and the child-size “North Sea” jackets we used in winter. These dark blue
jackets with orange lining were faithful copies of what the roughnecks wore.
The best thing of all was to have drill bits in the garden. These heads had
originally been on the end of the drill that broke through the earth’s crust,
down through the layers to the viscous black gold. They wore out quickly and
when they were replaced, the offshore installation manager or engineer was
sometimes allowed to keep them. The old tools were then coated with gold
paint and placed on either side of the garage driveway.
The drill bits could weigh up to several hundred kilos – they were
tubular and phallic, with three huge wheels that met at the top. The cogwheels
were made of the hardest steel available, and were rotated at such speed that
they could drill through the seafloor, no matter whether it was sand, clay or
rock that lay above the reservoirs of oil. In the late 1970s and early 1980s,
having drill bits in your garden was perhaps the ultimate symbol of wealth in
We admired this wealth. Behind the drill bits lay adventure and hard
work. The only parallel I know of is from a bit further south, in the fields of
our close relatives, the Jæren farmers, who during the same period often
spray-painted their old Kverneland ploughs and placed them out along the
main road.
Throughout my childhood, I don’t recall ever thinking of the liquid,
black North Sea oil as anything else than a blessing. The certainty that ‘oil’ was
our security and our future was absolute. And then something happened.
I don’t know if it was when I took off my North Sea jacket for good
sometime in the eighth grade and replaced it with a Palestine scarf and black
full-length coat, or if it had something to do with Frederic Hauge chaining
himself to the shipping facilities at the Titania factory in Jøssing Fjord. But at
some point or other, oil must have become suspect. At secondary school, the
oil euphoria of the textbooks was replaced by a critical focus on the ozone
layer and the greenhouse effect, and Erik Solheim lifted the members of the
Socialist Left Party to new heights with his vociferous environmental rhetoric.
The oil that we had admired so greatly had become a burden. The knowledge
that the liquid we took up from the bottom of the North Sea would be used to
drive cars and thereby produce CO
emissions was a thorn in the side of
politicians and the public sector, and I became anti-oil. Fifteen years on from
having cycled to the oil fair in Siddishallen in Stavanger to collect oil company
stickers, I was involved in a party leader debate at the Nature and Youth camp
at Kollsnes at the mouth of the fjord outside Bergen. The year was 1997;
eleven hundred activists and spectators had gathered in a massive protest
against the building of a gas processing plant. The Labour Party, which
controlled the country, Statoil, which controlled the oil, and Norwegian
industrialists in the supply sector all wanted to start a new phase of the
Norwegian oil era. Gas, which had gradually come to dominate the new fields
being opened, was to be brought onshore in Norway and converted into
energy. I had just been elected as leader of one of Norway’s smallest political
parties, the Red Electoral Alliance, and took part in a panel debate with
ministers and party leaders from other parties for the first time. The country’s
then Minister of Petroleum and Energy, Rannveig Frøyland, a warm supporter
of gas power, argued with sceptics and opponents from the centre and left. I
was against the project. The combustion of gas and oil involved such large
emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that I was willing to chain
myself to the construction machinery to stop the plans from being realised.
Unlike the others on the panel, I had already lived in a tent at the Joint Action
camp for several days – I was an active member of Nature and Youth, and had
also helped to paint several of the banners that stood in front of the stage.
Perhaps it was this, or perhaps it was the need of a small radical party
to stand out from the others. Either way, it wasn’t enough for me just to be
anti-gas. It would not do just to laugh along with the eleven hundred other
people present when Carl I. Hagen, from the Progress Party, claimed that the
UN climate panel was scaremongering. I had to go that extra yard. I got up
and went further than anything anyone else had said. I wasn’t only anti-gas
power and drilling for oil in northern Europe – I was anti-oil. ‘Plug the drill
holes with cement,’ I shouted over the windswept islands of Øygarden. The
activists clapped and cheered. ‘The oil nightmare must end,’ I shouted.
The journey from the deck of Statfjord B to these bare rocks outside
Bergen had been a long one. My memories of that celebration on the city’s
first proper oil platform were as good as gone. Having lived at an ever greater
distance from the daily business of oil, watching the oil money starting to
overfill the state coffers and certainly after almost twenty years of
environmental campaigning, my feelings about oil had changed completely.
What once had been a future dream had turned into a dystopia. But when I
said that, when the enthusiastic roar of the activists rose towards me, I also
felt that I had gone too far. I saw the TV cameras filming for the evening news.
I can still remember stiffening in the midst of my joy at the applause. ‘If this is
broadcast on the news this evening,’ I thought, ‘I can’t go back home to
Has this to do with something other than my personal history? Like all
children, I was at the mercy of my parents’ – in this case my father in
particular – narratives of the world. I came from a city that for quite obvious
material reasons was more closely connected to oil than any other place in
Norway. As a radical young man and party leader, I distanced myself even
more from oil than I ever had before. Students of the Historical-Philosophical
Faculty at the University of Bergen did not need to consider Norwegian oil
policy, the economy or the workers. Paradoxically, we comprised the major
part of the radical movement at the university back then. Perhaps my peers in
Stavanger did not experience the dependence on oil and the joy at having oil
in the same way that I did, and perhaps the contempt for oil was not as
intense among the other eleven hundred shabby opponents of the gas
processing plant. Even so, I don’t think this is primarily a private experience. I
think most other people who have lived close to oil share my feeling of
loneliness. The reality of living with the actual oil, which was even integrated
into our school day in Stavanger, gets barely a mention in the Norwegian
debate. Drillers, petrochemists, oil geologists, cleaning ladies and sheet
workers do not exist, just as the actual petroleum does not exist either. This
lack of knowledge about the actual oil has made room for another kind of oil.
An abstract oil, a purely theoretical entity that has nothing to do with the
carbon-based commodity that my entire city was intent on getting up from the
seabed. This oil only exists in debate and it only has two properties: it ruins
the environment and creates repulsive wealth.
When people talk about oil, it is increasingly this abstract oil that they
refer to. The oil that sits in small glass bottles collecting dust in Stavanger has
disappeared. At the Shell plant in Risavika just outside Stavanger, this oil was
refined into everything from diesel and petrol to lubricating oil and the finest
paraffin. We drew the refining process at school, I remember, and even in
secondary school we had to be able to point out where in the closed, heated
tank the various products came out – heavy lubricating oil and the raw
materials for asphalt at the bottom, diesel, paraffin and petrol right at the top.
When the oil tank was heated from below, it was possible to tap the products
according to the specific weight they had at various temperatures.
Growing up in the oil economy meant that oil was never abstract for us.
Even though we never saw it, never touched it with our own hands, but we felt
it. It was a material prerequisite for life as we knew it. A commodity, a
product, a process and an economy. Oil was more real for us than Oslo, more
physical than Holmenkollen, Sinsenkrysset and the many other references
that my contemporaries in Østlandet feel they share. Oil, on the other hand, is
strange and abstract for my east Norwegian friends.
This abstract oil that dominates the Norwegian oil debate is like heroin.
An illegal commodity that makes an undeserving few rich and ruins the lives
of the many people who are dependent on it. I am not the first to talk about oil
as a drug – it has become increasingly common to talk about the Norwegian
state as being oil-dependent, even as being an oil-junkie. The Norwegian
economy is described as being injected with oil money. ‘Petroholics,’
Norwegian politicians say about each other.
Eleven years after the debate at Kollsnes I was home on paternity leave
with my youngest daughter. I left the TV on all morning while I played with
her, trying to borrow some time to make lunch or read the paper. Breakfast TV
is not the most mind-stretching that the Norwegian TV channels serve to their
viewers. Ever since the days of Toppen Bech, it has constituted a summing up
of the consensus opinions of the adult Norwegian population, designed for
parents with young children, people who are not working and the retired.
When VG’s commentator Anders Giæver summed up a random week in 2008,
you can only assume that he represented Norwegian ‘common sense’. In a
piece about environmental policy and the economy, he said, with a touch of
scorn in his voice ‘... well, that will open people’s eyes to what we’re up to in
Norway, at any rate.’ It was said with condescension and contempt. ‘What
we’re up to.’ What we’re up to is as despicable to him as dealing in cocaine in
Columbia or producing heroin in Afghanistan. We are raking it in, profiting
from others’ misfortune, making a packet out of polluting the world.
It was only a brief comment, and I was busy feeding my daughter at the
time and not really following it. But it stuck with me, even so. Why was that?
Why let myself be irritated by something as little as that, yes, why get het up
about something as predictable as a negative comment about Norwegian oil
production? Perhaps precisely because it has become so predictable. The
points of view that the environmentalists brought into the Norwegian debate
in the late 1980s have become cheap truths among people at large. And that
has meant that everyone whose work is in or has to do with the Norwegian oil
industry has landed up on the losing side. For if North Sea oil is heroin, what
does that make those who built the rigs? What does it make the oil workers
doing 14-day shifts in storms out at sea, the students who choose to study
geology or engineering so that we can move modern oil production under the
sea surface? What does it make the crew on the supply ships that take food
and medicine out to the rigs? What does it make the women who do the
cleaning out on the Continental shelf and the children of all these people? If
you spend your working life producing heroin, doesn’t that make you a
pusher? Isn’t all the work that you have done then something that will harm
and not benefit the country? Is it possible to be proud of your father if your
father is drug dealer? I think that was why I was so annoyed, because Giæver,
with his offhand comment, was doing the same as most of the others who
write about oil. He was replacing actual oil with abstract oil, turning my father
and all those working in the oil industry into rogues and profiteers.
Today, thirteen years after I condemned oil and everything to do with
it, I am closer to the boy who held his father’s hand and looked proudly up at
the marvel that the engineers and workers at the Rosenberg Shipyard had
created. I am proud of what they did, proud that the city I came from was able
to play such a large part in the Norwegian oil fairytale. And this pride has
gradually resurfaced as society becomes less and less inclined to thank those
who did and are doing the work.
For the actual oil I grew up with is a completely different oil. All the
hard work that went into it was not motivated by a destructive urge to emit
increasing quantities of CO
. The people who stood in jeans and checked
shirts in sea spray on the deck of the pioneer rig, Ocean Viking, worked in
order to earn good money. But they also knew that if they succeeded, they
were guaranteeing the world the fuel it needed. In the early 1970s, people in
the West experienced petrol rationing. Ensuring new supplies of oil was not
just a matter for oil billionaires and adventurers. The discovery of real oil was
something worth celebrating. For the actual oil I grew up with was both fuel
and raw material. Plastic, paraffin and petrol could all be produced from it. Oil
fuelled the vehicles that brought the world’s produce to us, the generators that
provided power for hospitals and the planes that made it possible for some of
my generation to set out and ‘discover the world’ in their late-teens. Then as
now, emissions of climate gases were a by-product and not the aim of using
oil. What we are engaged in is not selling drugs, but rather supplying the
world with what at present is the raw material it needs most of all. If the
demand to stop extracting oil was taken seriously and it was actually stopped,
the consequences would be disastrous all over the world. There is hardly
anything that could kill more people than a total lack of oil. It is these qualities
one loses sight of when oil becomes abstract. It then also becomes
incomprehensible that a society would be as willing to do as much for oil as
Norway has.
Certain knowledge as to the cost of drilling for oil was part of my
everyday life as a child. I remember the whole family sitting together round
the radio at our cabin in Ryfylke at Easter 1980. The weather was cold and
awful, as is often the case at the end of March in Vestlandet. There was such a
gale blowing that even Father decided to stay indoors, and after dinner we
played cards. I can still recall my parents’ faces when there was a sudden news
flash. ‘The offshore rig Alexander Kielland has capsized in a hurricane in the
North Sea. A rescue operation is underway.’ They froze, the card game was
over, and we drove back to Stavanger the following morning. That night, 123
people died in the North Sea.
These deaths might seem random and distant today. While I was
growing up, however, they were omnipresent. I started school that same
autumn, and every day on my way home from school I looked straight at the
legs of this oil rig, the remaining four pontoons lay floating on the surface of
the fjord. Beneath these orange pontoons, Alexander Kielland lay for three
years before they managed to turn it. For three years, the helipad, the flotel
where people lived, the cinemas and canteens lay under the surface of the
fjord between Stavanger and the neighbouring town of Sandnes. No one knew
how many dead bodies were inside and how many had disappeared into the
The remains of the rig lay there long enough for the grotesqueness of it
to slowly shift into mystery. The local kids cycled down to the water to watch
the attempts to right the rig. While we speculated about what there might be
in the way of skeletons and other scary things inside the doors of the wreck,
the survivors and those left behind fought an intense battle to get the rig
turned. Both the oil companies and the authorities were afraid that an
investigation of the rig would be expensive and uncover faults they themselves
had committed. And the actual process of righting the rig was difficult enough.
The first attempt was made immediately after the rig had been towed back to
land. It was an incredibly slow process – every week on our way home from
school we could see that the floats had moved a few centimetres. Gradually,
the pontoons, which must each have been at least ten to fifteen metres in
diameter, tipped over on one side, and we tried to imagine the construction
under water coming back up to the surface. The world’s largest crane ship had
attached its thick cables and it turned the whole burial mound. Finally, the
floats lay edgewise in the water, and we could make out the first sections of
the deck just under the surface. But that was the end of it. The government
stopped the recovery operation. The cables were not thick enough, the cranes
were too weak. In the space of one night, the rig was back to where it had been
when it was towed in, upside-down, in view of tens of thousands of
Stavanger’s inhabitants.
Around Easter 1980, everyone in the city knew someone who was
related to someone or who knew about someone who had died in the struggle
to bring up oil. For three years, the wreck in the fjord reminded us of that fact.
At least 322 people have died in the North Sea or in the onshore industry
during the past forty years who are not mentioned in the present-day debate
about oil. Even when I tell good friends of mine about this part of my
childhood, I can see that people don’t believe it.
Before my father became a trade unionist and moved from his welding
shaft on the rig to the far safer union office, I can remember the slight shiver
of fear I felt every time the door was unlocked when I came home from school.
As a happy latchkey kid, I normally got home a couple of hours before my
parents. But if the door wasn’t locked, something was wrong. And if
something was badly wrong, my father was upstairs in bed. Two or three times
he suffered what is referred to in the statistics as an occupational injury. But
while such injuries in my job are mainly to do with a bad back or tendonitis, in
the shipbuilding industry they involve heavy things hitting your head, getting
badly burnt or falling from great heights. I was afraid that my father’s job
would end up causing him great harm. And not without reason. Sudden injury
and death are rare in Norway, but in the oil industry they have been usual for
a long time.
Three years after the disaster, the remains of the Alexander Kielland rig
were finally righted and towed to Nedstrandsfjorden north of Stavanger,
where they were sunk for good. A more optimistic picture now dominated the
view from the city districts southeast of Stavanger – the ‘condeeps’, long
cement gravity base structures for the large oil rigs. These slender concrete
structures, designed to stand firmly on the seabed and carry the actual rig
above have become the best-known symbol of Norwegian oil extraction. They
are Norway’s pyramids. They were invented, designed and built in Norway,
and can only be seen on the Norwegian Continental shelf in the North Sea. For
a ten-year period, the cementing was done in the dock at Jåttåvågen, the area
where the Viking football team now plays its home matches. If you watch the
TV broadcasts before such a match, you can see the camera zoom in over
Lifjellet with the old TV mast on the far side of the fjord, just make out the
former NATO headquarters for northern Europe hidden in Jåttånuten and see
the leaning tower of Stavanger. This is a leg made of concrete, perhaps 40–50
metres high, that rises diagonally. It looks like a model of a base post for a rig,
but there is no rig in the North Sea that stands on one lopsided leg. The
leaning tower is a technological experiment. A game played with concrete,
angles and gravity carried out by ‘Norwegian Contractors’ (NC), the company
that made the bases for most of the condeeps, in order to demonstrate the
strength and potential of using concrete. Before they built the tower, people
claimed it was impossible to devise a structure that leans so much that its top
outermost point is beyond the innermost point of its foundation. To put it
more simply: the tower ought to have collapsed, but it didn’t.
Condeep is an abbreviation for ‘concrete deep water structure’. When
oil was discovered, Norwegian engineers were already world leaders when it
came to placing concrete structures in water. Experience from the large dams
built in connection with the development of hydroelectric power in the post-
war period was now transferred to the North Sea. From the time the concrete
caisson on Ekofisk was opened in 1973 until the Troll rig was completed in
1995, no less than 14 such structures became operational in the North Sea.
The last one, Troll, is the tallest and heaviest structure ever to have been
moved by man. The shaft, i.e. the concrete posts, stretches 303 metres under
water, and it is 472 metres up to the highest point of the derrick. The entire
structure weighs 656,000 tons. When the posts had been cast, they were sunk
far enough in the sea for the workers from Aker Stord to be able to mount
what is referred to as the production and living quarters unit, i.e. the actual
platform, on top. The entire structure was then raised by emptying the large
ballast tanks, after which the seven-day tow began out into the North Sea.
International TV channels sent direct transmissions of the tow, and National
Geographic made a documentary about the rig. On arrival, the legs of the rig
were slowly lowered down to the seabed above the actual Troll Field, where
Troll is expected to stand and produce gas at some point in the second half of
the 21st century. If this rig had been built in the USA, Hollywood films would
have been made about it, and those who had worked on it would have been
proud to wear T-shirts with ‘I built Troll’ on them. In Norway, it has long since
been forgotten by everyone except the engineers and those who built it. For
me, the condeeps are perhaps the most vivid cultural heritage of my
childhood. There was always a base being cast at Jåttå. While Rosenberg
Shipyard might not always get the assignment for building the actual deck, it
was always Norwegian Contractors that built the legs.
The construction of the condeeps was perhaps what, most of all, tied
the city’s population to the oil industry. These gigantic structures were
actually made manually. The engineers and in particular the contractors tried
in every conceivable way to fill the shafts with concrete using pipes and
machines, but no matter how hard they tried to get the concrete from the
mixing tanks to the casts that were to become the platform legs, they could not
find a solution. The steel reinforcement in the liquid mass of concrete
perforated the feed pipes. Less reinforcement was out of the question. The
Sleipner disaster of 1991, where an entire substructure sank in ten minutes,
led to the concrete actually being reinforced with even more sharp steel rods.
For that reason, the platforms were built using wheelbarrows. For each of the
fourteen structures, almost two thousand men and a number of women went
up with barrow-loads of concrete. They went from the tip, where a hatch
opened and the wheelbarrow was filled with concrete in just a few seconds, via
a gangway across to the actual structure, where they deposited their load in
the great hole. Then back again, another load of concrete, and out onto the
gangway again. This endless repetition brought everyone together – from
teachers and students to professional labourers and farmers from Ryfylke,
northeast of Stavanger, anyone in need of some extra income. Both the work
and the yard became known as ‘The Slide’ – it probably linked people on the
mainland to oil more than anything else. Casting went on all the time, first in
Stavanger, then in Vats – in one of the counties northeast of Stavanger that
has the most rain. Here, the fjord was so deep close to the land that the legs
could gradually be sunk as they increased in height. They were then towed
‘home’, and the deck was mounted on top. The Stavanger of my childhood was
a concrete city.
Norway did not become an oil nation because we were lucky. It is often
said we got something we did not deserve, that we are simple, unsophisticated
people who happened to end up on a mountain of oil, where we sit on our
money like brooding hens. When the Norwegian maritime law expert,
diplomat and politician Jens Evensen managed to secure us a
disproportionately large share of the rights to the Continental shelf one might,
perhaps, speak of luck. And the fact that the oil should happen to be in
precisely our part of the North Sea might, at any rate, be called a coincidence.
But from that point onwards, it is a question of effort, sacrifice and over time
competence – not of luck. Norwegian oil is not easily accessible. On the
contrary, it lies under the bed of a stormy, deep sea. The technology for
extracting the oil did not exist, neither was there a model for ensuring
maximum national control over the new resources. And the method for
ensuring that the oil created prosperity did not exist either. For twenty years,
Norway as a state spent a large proportion of its national resources on
establishing this industry, creating the technology and building models that
were to ensure that the Norwegian mainland profited from the oil. In the same
period, the oil industry’s trade union spearheaded efforts to guarantee good
working conditions for those working on the land and ‘offshore’. The workers
there led the way in radical, nationwide campaigns to promote social reform
and solidarity. Being an oil worker on the Norwegian shelf is a highly paid job
– in Vestland it is a job with high status. Just over the border on the British
shelf, it is considered a badly paid, lousy job. For twenty years, the state lent
money to finance what it hoped would become future income. During those
years, the country went from being completely ignorant about oil to being a
world leader in oil technology. It is not true that Norway is not a
knowledgeable nation; it is just that the knowledge we have developed cannot
be translated into good conversations on Friday evening TV.
It was not until well into the 1980s that there began to be any return on
this national investment. By that time, the debt the country had incurred had
been paid off with the help of the oil revenue. And this resulted in one of the
great paradoxes in the history of Norwegian oil. When the debt had been
repaid, the oil money did not start to flood into the Norwegian economy. The
oil revenue was hardly used in Norway. The money, just like the oil that
created it, became taboo. It could not be touched, it was dirty money; it would
ruin the Norwegian economy if it was used. There was too much of it –
gradually a rhetoric developed that presented this oil money almost as if it
were counterfeit money, assets we had acquired without having earned them,
money that was as toxic as oil. All this resulted in the Government Petroleum
Fund, a construction that, instead of bringing assets back to Norway, has so
far transferred more than 280 billion kroner to international stock exchanges,
funds and stockbrokers.
The idea that we have not earned the oil is the most important reason
why so many people have accepted the concept of a petroleum fund. If the oil
has simply fallen into our hands without our having done or sacrificed
anything for it, there is no reason then why we should be allowed to use oil
money. And the fact that oil is taboo also makes it easier to believe the claim
that the oil money will ruin the economy if it is used on the mainland.
The income from the oil industry has also become dirty – it is kept
outside the ‘pure’ economy. This political sleight of hand is best seen in the
Norwegian national accounts. Here, a consistent distinction is made between
the mainland economy and what happens in the North Sea. In a country that
has used large parts of its human, national and technological resources to
become an oil nation, oil is taken out of the national accounts. That is like a
football team taking stock at the end of the season and not including points
from its home matches.
When the revenue from the sale of oil is not included in the Norwegian
mainland economy, it becomes all the more important to develop new oil
fields in order to ensure that oil production also generates prosperity on land.
The workers in the oil industry and local communities around cornerstone
businesses that are dependent on oil, along with the oil companies, are the
most important advocates of opening up new fields. They make a considerable
impact precisely because oil revenues cannot, for example, be used to develop
industry, build roads or schools. Paradoxically, oil opponents have thereby
made the expansive Norwegian oil policy easier to legitimise among its people.

Oil is not a random gift from God. It is the result of intensive efforts. A poor,
bankrupt shipping town was transformed into an international oil city.
Farmland became a desert of offices, harbours became refineries and the
picturesque sea approach to Stavanger became a reception area for the world’s
biggest oil tankers, tugs and rigs. Stavanger went from God to Mammon – and
most likely lost something en route. Many people, though, sacrificed more: life
and limb, physical and mental health, marriage – and children rarely saw
their fathers. Many other things came to nothing because Norway put all its
money into the North Sea venture. It is these efforts that caused and still
cause people from where I come from to feel that we deserve the oil money.
Unlike most of those who talk about or are in charge of the money, we have
done something for it.
When I was growing up, we all knew which oil fields were going to be
developed in the years ahead. Not because we had objections to the
development, and even less because we were planning to protest against such
plans. We knew because we kept tabs on who was going to be asked to build
the platform deck. Would it be Aker or Kværner? If it was Aker, people in
Verdal and Stord would get work, and we wouldn’t. If it was Kværner, it was
Rosenberg. The actual awarding of the contract was always headline news on
the front page of Stavanger Aftenblad. When things went well, when we got
the contract, there were great celebrations at Rosenberg, in the newspaper,
throughout the city and in our own home. When things went badly, there was
rejoicing somewhere else. I can understand people in Finnmark and Lofoten
who want to find oil there. They live in areas threatened by depopulation.
They long for the joy I felt as a young boy when ‘we’ were the ones who got the
contract. I truly wish they could experience that happiness. I still meet left-
wingers, friends and acquaintances, who expect me to condemn oil and all it
entails. I can’t. I no longer believe the story that says to continue extracting oil
and gas from the Norwegian Continental shelf will lead to increased total CO

emissions in the world. The world’s energy needs are growing too rapidly for
that, no matter what we do with our oil. But there are perhaps other reasons
that are good enough for us to stop extracting oil in these areas. The spill in
the Gulf of Mexico in spring 2010 demonstrates just how little we can trust the
assurances of oil companies that everything is safe. Such slips are capable of
ruining fish stocks – you do not need to be anti-oil to realise that. And a lack
of oil in the future makes it particularly sensible in terms of the economy and
resources to have a store of oil and gas for the production of, for example,
plastics and aircraft fuel. Oil is worth more stored below the seabed than
pumped up as quickly as possible. But if opponents of oil are to have any
chance of gaining ground, they must start talking about the actual oil instead
of conjuring up a monster.
The town I grew up in is on its last legs as an oil city. The oil wells are
half-empty and no one is building large rigs anymore. The oil pumps lie on the
seabed and are controlled from computer rooms on land. At Rosenberg
Shipyard, they still produce equipment for oil extraction, but now there are
only a few hundred men left working there. There are no rigs on the approach
to Stavanger, and the drill bits have long since disappeared from driveways.
Instead, Stavanger is set to become a city of culture, knowledge and finance.
The most discussed local company with a head office in Stavanger in 2009
was SKAGEN Funds, a finance company that has no CO
emissions. Only that
which is worse.