In the middle of the North Sea, four metal platforms perched on yellow supports and weighing 100,000 tonnes sit above more than $1oobn of black gold. The Johan Sverdrup field, located in Norwegian waters not far from the border with the UK, does not officially open until January, but has already polarised opinion. For proponents, it marks nothing less than the revival of Norway’s oil industry; for critics, it is an environmental tragedy that shows just how hard climate change will be to stop.
“Johan Sverdrup very much represents the future of Norwegian oil,” said an enthused Arne Sigve Nylund, head of development and production in Norway for Equinor, the state-controlled oil major that is the field operator. Situated in one of the first licences handed out on the Norwegian continental shelf more than half a century ago, Johan Sverdrup holds about 2. 7bn barrels of oil and, only a few weeks after its unofficial start-up, is already the largest producing field in western Europe.
But perhaps its biggest selling point for both Equinor and the Norwegian government is that it is powered by electricity from shore, rather than the usual gas turbines, making it a flagship for their argument that if the world still needs oil for decades it would be best to have it from sources that have the lowest carbon emissions.
“It’s an incredibly important project for Norway. We are, on average, best at getting oil out with the lowest emissions,” said Kjell-Borge Freiberg, Norway’s oil minister. He added that carbon dioxide emissions per barrel from Johan Sverdrup were just 700g versus a global average of 18kg. As one of the largest finds anywhere in recent years, the fortunes of the Johan Sverdrup field are being closely watched by other oil groups. But for all the jubilation, there are still big questions about western Europe’s biggest oil industry, not least due to environmental pressure.Johan Sverdrup is a field that should never have been planned or opened. It is yet another field that prolongs the problem,” said Silje Lundberg, head of the Norwegian Society for the Conservation of Nature.