Norway’s prime minister insisted the Scandinavian country would continue to drill for oil and gas, ahead of a re-election campaign in which the future of the fossil fuel industry will be intensely debated.
Erna Solberg, in power since 2013 and bidding for an unprecedented third term for a Conservative prime minister in Norway, told the Financial Times that oil production in the country was slowing down.
But she refused to back calls from the International Energy Agency, the oil watchdog previously much admired in Oslo, to stop all new petroleum projects to keep climate change in check. She insisted there was a continued need for Norwegian oil and gas, including to make hydrogen.
“There is a big change going on, and that will happen anyway. The question is just how fast it will go. We don’t intend to speed it up politically,” the prime minister said on a campaign stop in the southern town of Tvedestrand.
The reliance of Norway, western Europe’s biggest petroleum producer, on oil and gas is likely to be a hot topic in national elections set for September 13.
Solberg, the first centre-right leader to serve two full terms in a country that was long dominated by the centre-left Labour party, lags behind in the opinion polls.
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Her best hope is to energise centre-right voters, including those of two small parties lurking under the 4 per cent support barrier needed to enter parliament, and to hope that some of the leftwing groups fail to clear that hurdle.
Solberg is projecting her minority government — which has undergone several changes since 2013, including the departure last year of the populist Progress party — as a proven and stable choice while the centre-left is beset by squabbles over potential coalitions.
“One of our biggest challenges before has been to co-operate on the non-socialist [centre-right] side. We’ve managed that, even though it’s not been perfect,” she said.
The two main centre-left groups — Labour and the rural Centre party — are both staking a claim to the prime minister role, potentially confusing voters, as well as saying they would co-operate with different centre-left groups.
Both Labour and Centre back the Norwegian oil industry — which includes the most extensive exploration programme of any country in the Arctic — but could be dependent for support on smaller parties that want to wind down the country’s biggest sector.
The Green party — which is in power in the city of Oslo with Labour — has said it would only support a government that stopped future oil exploration, in line with the IEA recommendation.
Solberg said she believed the election campaign would be “a discussion on the way forward for Norway”, which could help the centre-right. Norway’s oil industry could be part of the “green transformation”, she added, while natural gas could play a role in “the hydrogen future for Europe”.
Advocates of the industry, including Solberg, have argued that petroleum producers have the necessary capital to invest in renewable energy while oil services companies could change their business models to help install and service offshore wind turbines.
The centre-right is banking on the strength of Solberg’s personality, relying on her homely social media posts and warm personality, against Labour’s former foreign minister Jonas Gahr Store, who is viewed as more formal and rigid.
But her support took a knock in April when she became the first leader in the world to be fined for breaking their own country’s Covid-19 rules over her 60th birthday celebrations.
She told the FT in May that it was “absolutely embarrassing”, adding: “To be very honest, if I’d not been fined, the discussion in Norway would have been much more difficult for me.”
Solberg is the sole centre-right prime minister in the Nordics, and one of the most successful Conservative leaders in Europe behind Germany’s outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel. Solberg put her success on the centre-right down to having “an inclusive policy”.
“Yes, you should have sound economics, you should make sure you prioritise creating jobs, competitiveness . . . but in the transformation to new technologies, towards digitalisation, that can leave people behind,” she said. “So you have to have an inclusive policy on education and on skillsets to make sure you get people into work.”