The young Norwegians taking their own country to court over oil

Despite Norway’s green credentials, its infamous state wealth is due to its huge oil exports. This week, Norwegian youths are challenging what they describe as a double standard, in court.

In the Barents Sea in June, the sun is still shining at 2am.

Small waves refract the orange sunlight into the hazy air. A sailing boat cuts through the freezing Arctic waters. Far beyond it, on the horizon, rises a giant. This is Goliat, the world’s northernmost operating oil rig, drilling for fuel on the Norwegian continental shelf.

The boat’s radio crackles. Goliat’s workers are warning the ship’s crew to stay out of the rig’s exclusion zone.

“And enjoy sailing,” the rigger adds.

“And you guys,” the 21-year-old captain, Thor Due, says, “enjoy drilling!”

Thor’s natural politeness overrides his true feelings.

It is 2018, and Thor and his crewmates are on their way home from Bear Island, south of the Svalbard archipelago, where they have been documenting the area’s rich wildlife. They worry this unique landscape would be threatened by any oil spills.

But their main concern is far bigger.

It is just a few months after Thor and other members of Norway’s Nature and Youth group – environmentalists under the age of 25 – lost the first round of what has become a long-running legal fight with the Norwegian state over oil.

On 4 November, this battle will come to a head when the two sides face each other for a final hearing in Norway’s Supreme Court.

Thor and his fellow activists want to set their country on a new course – to force one of the wealthiest states in the world to abandon its biggest source of income.

They say that oil and gas being extracted from Norwegian waters, to be sold on to the rest of the world, is contributing to devastating climate change. Norway is Europe’s second-biggest oil producer after Russia.

The activists contend that by issuing new licences for oil exploration in the Arctic in May 2016, the state breached its own constitutional obligation to ensure a clean environment for its citizens and future generations.

The group, together with members of Greenpeace Norway, lost the initial case – the court ruling that Norway could not be held responsible for pollution beyond its borders.

They also lost a subsequent appeal, with the court still ruling that the state was not in contravention of its constitution, although it did this time agree that Norway should be held accountable for its foreign emissions.

But in Norway a court case can be appealed twice, hence the final debate in the Supreme Court.

Thor’s early years were spent sailing with his father, zig-zagging across the North Sea to avoid the various rigs’ exclusion zones – an experience that brought him up close to the industry he is now taking on.

Oil is a sensitive subject in Norway. The petroleum industry, majority-owned by the state, is credited with transforming the country from a poor fishing nation to the owner of the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. If all its citizens stopped working, they could live off the oil money for three years.

Norway’s oil production is estimated to account for approximately 0.7% of global emissions from fossil fuels, making the country the source of roughly 100 times the greenhouse gas emissions per capita of the world average.

And yet Norway has impressive green credentials in other ways. It was the first industrialised nation to ratify the Paris climate change agreement, which pledges to try and limit global temperatures to 1.5C above pre-industrial times. It is also a major donor to the Green Climate Fund, which finances environmental initiatives in developing countries, and has pledged that its oil fund money will never be invested in companies it judges particularly harmful to the environment.

Norway also has the highest per capita use of electrical cars of all countries in the world – 42,4% of cars sold in 2019 were electric.

“The Norwegian paradox is that its leadership in some aspects of addressing the global climate emergency is enabled by wealth generated by a large petroleum industry,” David Boyd, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the environment and human rights, said in a 2019 report.

Thor spent much of his early university life volunteering to help prepare for the two first court cases. Even though two more organisations eventually came on board, there were only a handful of paid staff – everything else was done by volunteers.

He and other members of Nature and Youth immersed themselves in the subject and became experts on marine oil and drilling.