Oil Town — Stavanger

When we got off Prinsendam in Stavanger, I noticed some buses and trucks idling.  A sign proclaimed Stavanger the sister of Houston.  This is oil country. 

Stavanger is the city in Western Norway closest to the North Sea oil fields.  It has a wooden old town, but unlike other towns we encountered almost (but not) all the buildings were painted white instead of cheerful colors.  The exception being one particular business street.  We set out on foot, along the waterfront and through the town, to the Norsk Oljemuseum, Norwegian Petroleum Museum set in a building that is really a stunning bit of modern architecture.

I was expecting a celebration of all things petrol but instead I found a thoughtful, somewhat playful interactive discussion of the pros and cons of oil development. 

You start with a 15-minute film “Oil Kid” about a man born in 1969, the year oil was discovered (and one year after we first visited a poor country named Norway).  His dad’s an offshore oil worker.  He’s personally benefitted from the oil boom but he and his dad have been estranged for 20 years over oil.  The “Oil Kid” is an environmentalist who disagrees with his dad working for oil.  The father wants to provide what he can for his family.  It ends with them meeting and sitting together, mostly in silence.  You hope they are reconciled but you don’t really know.  And that is the story of the museum.

It gives you facts and figures about the oil industry, you get to see drills, bits, can try on a survival suit. There’s an oil rig jungle gym for kids, and a geological history of how oil, discovered, extracted and used. There is also an energy timeline about how humans have used different types of energy over history. 

It invites you to ask question but does not provide answers.  Have the benefits outweighed the costs?  The benefits are obvious, the costs to culture and society are implied.  If you follow the sequence you end up in a large display on global warming, the science behind it and international political action taken to combat it.  It questions Norway’s role in the world petroleum market, and includes views of protesters saying “leave it in the ground.”  It asks citizens to make decisions and try to influence their elected officials however they feel.  One display it quizzes you on oil facts.  If you get so many questions right it allows you to leave an opinion message on the spot.  It’s trying to promote informed comments.

The museum invites you to explore, learn and then take action.  One point that the museum does emphasize is that it’s incumbent as Norway, as a first world country, to cut its own consumption of fossil fuels and to conserve electricity at home to be able to export non-carbon hydro to the rest of Europe.

One display shows per-capita generation of carbon.  Norway releases about half the carbon per person as the United States although more than most third world countries, including China and India.

The museum talks about Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund established in 1990 (with no mention of Alaska Governor Jay Hammond who went to Norway to push for a permanent fund) and talks about how it invests outside Norway, how 2/3 of the oil money goes into the fund (as opposed to ½ in Alaska) and how Norway uses a combination of tax credits to help small producers while imposing a carbon tax on all producers to encourage them to create a small carbon footprint.

One of the things the museum pointed out is how Norway took control of its oil from the multinational oil companies, especially the Americans.  When the oil boom started a lot of Americans lived in Stavanger, but they have trained their workforce so it’s almost all Norwegian.

When making comparisons with Alaska I must always remember that Norway is sovereign while Alaska is a state subject to federal regulation and taxes.  But I will make a few anyway.

Norway did not lower taxes when it got oil.  People still pay a 25% Value Added Tax (VAT) the same as in Denmark and Sweden.  They also pay high income tax by our standards.  The docent said he pays about 40% but this is less than he would pay in Sweden or Denmark.  Then there is the carbon tax.  The point about Norway is that people are still paying for their government so kept a closer eye on it than Alaskans do on ours.    

Norway already had much of its infrastructure, especially hydro (using Marshall Plan money) and a basic road system, as well as its welfare state in place BEFORE oil.  It did invest as heavily in roads, ports and airports, but it did not have to catch up the way Alaska did, especially in areas like basic sanitation. 

And one final, very important difference.  Statoil, the state oil company is based in Norway and, after an initial influx of Americans and Brits, the oil industry is run now by people in Norway for the long haul.  Alaska’s oil companies say they are in Alaska for the long haul but they’re headquartered Outside and their interests are primarily Outside.  That makes a huge difference.  Most the people working in Norway’s oil industry intend to die in Norway, not retire to Washington, California or Texas.  This was emphasized in my discussions with museum staff.  A fair number of people working in oil in Alaska do not have a long-term commitment to the state.  If you vote in a state where you don’t intend to retire you may look more at short term gains, lowest taxes, or a bigger PFD dividend rather than the long-term prospects for education rural development, non-oil infrastructure (ferries for instance), or long term economic development.  It was an interesting morning, into the afternoon, of exhibits and discussion.

Before going back to Prinsendam we had coffee on a sunny waterside deck (the waitress is so used to taking credit cards that she didn’t have change for my Norwegian banknotes) and walked back through both the new bustling oil town, the old wooden traditional town and a harbor walk with the footprints of Nobel Peace Laurates, taking note of parking spaces with recharging stations for electric cars.  You fill her up using a mobile phone app to pay for the juice.  On board we sailed out of Stavanger Harbor and away from Norway.

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