Cowboy Nation

Norway's Wild West fantasy

Equinor, Norway’s state-owned oil and gas company, is riding headlong into the world’s fossil-fuelled sunset, whilst its cowboy nation is trotting comfortably along in its trail.  Historian and mythbuster, Henrik Olav Matthiessen goes in pursuit.
is a PhD student in history at the University of Oslo. He enjoys graveyard sightseeing, speaking with the dead (preferably through print), and nineteenth century radicalism. He aims to tell it like it is, like it was, and how it will be.
Equinor is the publicly owned Norwegian company firmly intent upon wreaking havoc on the world for as long as possible. Off our own shores – and far beyond.

In 2017, the company won the bid for two licences to drill offshore in the Great Australian Bight, despite strong and continuing local protests. 

Trust a company like Equinor to know how to square a circle: ‘We know how much the Great Australian Bight matters to you. It could also be one of Australia’s largest untapped oil reserves.’

The Wilderness Society South Australia, meanwhile, is convinced that ‘Norwegians would be justifiably horrified to find out that their state-owned oil company is carrying on like cowboys in Australia’.

Would we, though? Let me tell you something, pendejo


Fossil-fuel nation

This is what we do. In an evident attempt to disguise who we are, our state-owned oil company Statoil (i.e. ‘State Oil’) recently rebranded itself as Equinor. While the intention might have been to obfuscate what the company actually does and who it represents, in reality we have exposed our true selves. The equestrian-sounding name alludes to our ongoing Nordic rodeo show: our fossil fuel company is an untamed horse, and we will ride it for as long as we can.

Equinor is owned by all Norwegians. This is our nation’s company, our common property, our treasure chest. We save up all our fossil fuel profits in what we call the ‘Government Pension Fund Global’ – colloquially known as the ‘Oil Fund’ – herded along by the national bank. Our trillion-dollar fund invests in dirty industries across the globe: oil, gas, oil sands – you name it, we have stakes in it.

Even when we divest, it is to protect our oil money. The decision in March 2019 to sell our shares in companies exclusively dedicated to oil and gas exploration and extraction was made, according to the Minister of Finance, to ‘spread the risk’ of our investments. 

You think we are horrified by our actions? We are a nation of cowboys. Barely holding the reins of our public fossil fuel company, we drive our prize cattle across vast distances in search of the profits waiting for us at the railway depot. 

In 2016, our Minister for Petroleum and Energy declared that ‘those who will turn off the lights on the Norwegian continental shelf [i.e. on Norwegian offshore oil and gas fields] have yet to be born.’

Dark clouds over the ever darkening Norwegian mountains where the glaciers are melting (photo: Maja Brenna)

To put it in cowboy terms, ‘It’s your misfortune and none of my own’. This is a line from an old cowboy ballad, used by the historian Richard White to describe the attitude driving the exploitative, extractive, and environmentally disastrous economy of the Wild West. It still applies. 


Norway and the Wild West

The Wild West is nothing but Norway’s own backyard.

I am not simply referring to the fact that the country emptied itself of more than 750,000 of its inhabitants, as Norwegian emigrants sought cheap soil to farm in the American Midwest. Seeking land on the frontier and thereby contributing to the displacement of the indigenous populations there, Norwegians quickly learned how to grow cash crops and become capitalist farmers for an emerging US grain export market.

The golden fields turn black and we continue to encroach on the Old West. Just last autumn, Equinor bought an enormous tract of land in Louisiana – in the Austin Chalk formation – where the company hopes to discover oil. And in 2011, Equinor bought into the Bakken oil field in North Dakota, now proudly introducing themselves as ‘one of the largest producers in the area.’ 

In a way, the last one was a homecoming: in North Dakota in 2009, 30.8% of the state’s population reported themselves to be of Norwegian ancestry. The original Bakkens in North Dakota were the Norwegian immigrant farmers, Otto and Mary Bakken.

The pipeline from Bakken, which, like the cattle drives of the past, funnels yet-unrealised profits across the Wild West to downstream refineries and markets, is now better-known as the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Oh, you bet we made money off that one.


Accessing Dakota’s oil

When the Standing Rock protests began in 2016, the Oil Fund had invested some 10.3 billion Norwegian kroner in the pipeline companies. It amounted to a third of the $3.8 billion total cost of the project.

As if that was not enough, our largest bank, DNB, was also heavily funding these companies. By 2016, the bank had lent the companies and the project $555 million. Over 400 organisations from 47 countries demanded that DNB and other banks divest and, in March 2017, the bank announced to the world that it had backed down and sold its shares in the project, causing the bank to no longer have ‘any direct financial exposure to the Dakota Access Pipeline.’ 

In November that same year, however, the bank was discovered to be lending money to four out of the five companies which had built the pipeline, totaling $860 million.

It was the indigenous Sámi division of Norway’s national broadcasting corporation, NRK Sápmi, which took the trouble of digging up and exposing the heavy Norwegian investments in the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Despite this exposure, the Oil Fund was staunchly unwilling to divest. Therefore, in October 2017, Standing Rock protesters met with the latter’s Council on Ethics in the Norwegian capital, Oslo. On the very same day of the meeting, NRK Sápmi disclosed that in 2017 the Oil Fund had increased its investments by another $100 million.

The Standing Rock protesters had brought cutlery to a six-shooter gunfight and left, not surprisingly, empty-handed, the Council on Ethics not even deigning to send them off with empty promises. However, they did get a hand wave of sorts – or at least a middle finger.


‘Stop being so sensitive’

A week after the protesters met with the Council on Ethics, a parliamentary representative demanded a government response concerning the increased investments in the Dakota Access Pipeline. 

The answer came a week later from the Minister of Finance, Siv Jensen: ‘The government is concerned with an ethical consciousness regarding the management of the Government Pension Fund Global.’ Despite being, as minister of finance, the Oil Fund’s ultimate chief, the response was a disingenuous mix of waffle, avoidance and an annihilation of responsibility.

By this point, the Department of Finance had already thrown its annual autumn party, celebrating the completion of the state budget for the upcoming year. It was to be a dress-up party, the theme of which was fitting: superheroes, fantasy and – would you have guessed it – the Wild West.

Siv Jensen had evidently been inspired by the recent Standing Rock controversy and the feeble protest in our parliament, opting for the Pocahontas look. Then, our Minister of Finance, in full redface, posed for the camera and updated her Instagram account.

The president of the Sámi Parliament, Aili Keskitalo, pointed out the obvious bad taste of dressing up as fantasy Indians when distraught indigenous people from North America had just left the country

The president of the Sámi Parliament, Aili Keskitalo, pointed out the obvious bad taste of dressing up as fantasy Indians when distraught indigenous people from North America had just left the country, stating ‘I find it reprehensible that she who is the head of the Pension Fund Global dresses up as if she is making fun of those who actually suffer from the money we earn.’ Siv Jensen’s deputy, Petter Kvinge Tvedt, spoke on behalf of the Minister and urged Keskitalo to have a sense of humour and to ‘stop being so sensitive.’

The word Kvinge Tvedt actually used was hårsår – literally ‘hair sore’ – referring to reacting excessively if pulled by the hair. Once again, the Department of Finance showed all the sensitivity of a blunt knife during a scalping. 

I think this alone makes my point. We are routinely capable of being simultaneously financially cynical and callous towards both our own and the North American indigenous populations, all in a single, dismissive sentence. 

Norway’s attitude to the consequences of its fossil-fuelled megalomania is not simply pure indifference adorned with a little scorn. It is actually worse than that. 


We judge that we have no responsibility

This January, the Norwegian government proudly announced that it had offered a record-breaking number of licenses to companies seeking to extract more oil and gas on the Norwegian continental shelf, including in the Barents Sea – the Arctic. On 14th March – the day before an estimated 1.4 million children across the world walked out of school begging adults to help avoid turning their future into a fossil-fuelled climate hell – came the announcement that yet another record-breaking number of permits were being planned for next year.

The horse is in full gallop, and there is as of yet little barbed wire fencing to slow it down. 

In 2016, environmental organisations sued the Norwegian government for planning to open new oil fields in the Arctic – fields made more accessible, of course, because of global warming.

The trial did not go well, with the verdict entirely absolving the government of any breach of the constitution’s Article 112, which states the ‘right to an environment that is conducive to health and to a natural environment whose productivity and diversity are maintained. Natural resources shall be managed on the basis of comprehensive long-term considerations which will safeguard this right for future generations as well.’ The premise of the ruling was that ‘Emissions of CO2 abroad, from oil and gas exported from Norway, are not relevant to take into consideration when evaluating whether the resolution entails a breach of Article 112.’

Of course, they are not. So full steam ahead. 

When the fossil fuel industry suffuses an entire society, like it does in Norway, where according to Statistics Norway some 6% of the workforce are involved in the industry and ‘most industries are delivering to the petroleum industry, either directly or as subcontractors’, and where the government itself is in charge of it, I think it fair to say that we seem to be doing better with bank cheques and balance sheets than with checks and balances.

The court’s verdict is being appealed, with the help of a quarter of a million Norwegian kroner’s worth of prize money a Norwegian non-profit decided to confer on Greta Thunberg, which she in turn promptly decided to donate to the lawsuit.

The court’s lapse in elementary logic, however, is reflected in a common viewpoint: climate change will not affect us or our future generations. Not badly, anyway. A ‘climate vulnerability analysis’ for Oslo is currently underway, and it is being discussed in terms of the necessity of increasing the clothes peg capacity of kindergartens: ‘It will be a completely different weather to reckon with. So we will have to consider at least one extra peg per child.’ The analysis apparently presumes five degrees of warming. 

As the EU’s ‘European Green Capital 2019’, Oslo has been inviting the world to come and witness our progress. The EU is at least right about one thing: capital. Fossil fuel is to Norway what cotton was to the slave-holding United States: it accounts for more than half the value of the nation’s total exports. Norwegian oil exports cover some 2% of global demand, and after Russia we are the biggest gas exporting country in the world. While we are rapidly developing a bright and shiny waterfront for our fjord capital – as if we are daring the sea to rise even an inch – we view ourselves in a mirror, darkly. When Norwegians want to invoke an image of unruly and reckless behaviour, we say: ‘Dette er helt Texas’ – ‘this is totally Texas’. 

Norwegian frontiersman: attempting to reach the North Pole, 1894 (Photo: Fridtjof Nansen / National Library of Norway)

Myths of (Production) Purity

As masters of self-deceptive narratives, we in the small Arctic kingdom of Norway continue to find ways to justify our royal screw-over of everyone below our latitude.

The United States might have ‘clean coal’, but we have ‘clean oil’. And we are somehow about to conjure up greenhouse gas-free gas. This is the idea currently sold by the director-general of the ‘Norwegian Oil and Gas Association’, the industry lobby organisation, anyway. 

Equinor’s aim is to be ‘the world’s most carbon-efficient oil and gas producer’. When per country and per capita carbon emissions are calculated, Norway’s territorial emissions, including oil and gas production, only contribute some 52 million tonnes of CO2 each year. 

If you add up the emissions from the burning of our exports abroad, however, the total will be approximately 550 million tonnes annually. At some 100 tonnes per capita – excluding international flights – that brings the entire nation comfortably towards the top of the leaderboard of individual carbon emitters in the world: Oxfam estimates that the top 10% richest people in the world emit 17.6 tonnes per capita. The absolute top emitters have been suggested to come in at over 200 tonnes each.

And we do fly quite a lot. Erik Solheim, the former UN environment chief who had to resign from his position last year because of his excessive flying is not a lone ranger. He is a Norwegian.

Hi-ho, silver wings, away.


Prince of the Rodeo

On the 1998 album fittingly entitled ‘Apocalypse Dudes’, the Norwegian ‘deathpunk’ band Turbonegro performed what for a long time now has amounted to our national anthem. 

‘Prince of the Rodeo’ is a euphemism for a forceful, relentless determination to ride, dominate, and screw everyone else over, a drive personified as ‘the world’s most progressive cowboy’. The cowboy boot fits, and we wear it. The song pretty much sums up Norway’s prevailing attitude towards the rest of the world – and its own future.

As our current Minister for Petroleum and Energy likes to put it these days: ‘as long as there continues to be demand for oil and gas, Norway will deliver – and we will do it with a low carbon footprint.’

If you call us cowboys, we just smile. You have simply spotted the spurs on our boots.

Yippee ki-yay, motherfuckers.


Dark Mountain: Issue 15

The Spring 2019 issue is a collection of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that responds to the ‘age of fire’.


Read more
  1. I had just about lost interest in Dark Mountain,
    too much boring writing, too many hunters
    (one would be too many for me) but this article
    has restored my faith in what it is you can do.

  2. When is the world going to notice that our entire society on this planet is fundamentally criminal. Our economies rest on lies, unfounded assumptions, delusions and theft. Theft is not quite the word I am looking for. It is robbery in the English sense of theft from the person but it is infinitely more than that. It is theft from the future, from our children but also from all other living things. I don’t, we don’t, have a word for that comprehensive, global form of theft.

    We have “Nature”, the “Natural World”, the “Environment” as if they are separate entities and we even have words for one of the daftest concepts of all, “Nature Reserve”, as if “it” can be somehow fenced in, kept in a special place while we get on with the normal routines of “life” safe in the knowledge that “Nature” is protected as if in a museum.

    Just as we are bereft of the language expressing the oneness of everything, we are bereft of the language to express the totality of the crime of our way of life which is focussed on having and expanding that having continuously.

    I have family in Scandinavia and particularly love Norway, its water, rock and tree composition. And how clever of them to have their giant Sovereign Wealth Fund. But now I see that every Norwegian is handling stolen goods. But we all are. Who is going to organise the amnesty so we can hand it all back?


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