Stavanger Area Wrap Up

Although I didn’t spend a large amount of time in Stavanger itself, I really loved what I saw and also really enjoyed the nearby area. Here are my tips:

  1. If you want to look around the nearby area (which you should) I would highly recommend getting a car and driving around. I would particularly recommend driving the two nearby national tourist routes, Ryfylke and Jæren.
  2. Ryfylke
    1. Definitely make a trip to Pulpit Rock, though be aware that it’ll be a hike to get there and that it’s mountainous. Go early in the morning to avoid crowds and check with the local tourist office to make sure that it’s open. The other famous rock formation in this area is Kjerag, which Abby and I didn’t make it to since it was still buried in snow even at the end of May.
    2. Pay a quick stop to Sandsfossen and Høsebrua to admire the waterfall and walk over the bridge.
    3. Definitely stop by Svandalsfossen waterfall. It’s incredible. Be sure to bring a waterproof jacket though.
  3. Jæren
    1. If you have the time, continue past Ogna towards Egersund, since the surrounding scenery is gorgeous.
    2. Check out the quaint church at Varhaug old cemetery.
  4. Stavanger is pretty small and easy to walk around so I would recommend doing that. It’s vibrant colors and street art also set it apart from most Norwegian towns.
  5. Check out the Norwegian Petroleum Museum to learn more about Norway’s relationship with oil. Also stop by the next door playground and see how they’re repurposed old shipping parts.

Stavanger

Our last day in Stavanger was a bit of an odd one. In Norway, May is the month of public holidays, which meant that Abby and I had Monday off for Pentecost, but then again so did everyone else. Most things were closed due to the holiday, which meant that we were able to start the day off at a leisurely pace. The first item on our agenda: breakfast.

Now, one of the things Heather asked us to do with her hotel points was to enjoy a hearty breakfast. Abby and I were pretty confident that we were up to the challenge. Norwegian hotel breakfast is by far some of the best I’ve ever had in terms of options. So, taking some inspiration from Heather’s husband Jason, an avid fan of Norwegian breakfast, we did battle with the buffet table and managed to go away stuffed after a few courses. For another perspective on Norwegian breakfast, check out a blog post that Jason did on breakfast amongst other things.

IMG_3928  IMG_3929  IMG_3930After loading our things into the car, Abby and I wandered back into town and checked out the local market before moseying over to the Norwegian Petroleum Museum. Now whenever I mentioned that I was going to Stavanger to Norwegians, the general reaction was something along the lines of “Ugh, oil.” Stavanger is the home of Statoil, Norway’s largest energy company, and is also the headquarters of many other energy companies. So while my Norwegian compatriots weren’t thrilled that I was going to Stavanger, I was excited to go Stavanger, and I was particularly excited to go to this museum to learn a bit more about Norway’s relationship with oil.

The museum itself is pretty well designed and very family friendly. Much of the museum is dedicated to the history of oil and gas in Norway, how it is monitored and regulated, and of course what life is like on board oil rigs. I’m not entirely sure when all of the information was published in the museum (so some of the stats might be a bit outdated) but here’s some of what I learned.

Although Norway is well known for its oil wealth, as of 2009, the Norwegian continental shelf only contains .6% of the world’s found oil reserves and 1.6% of its gas reserves. While plenty of other countries have more oil and gas (Norway is 18th for oil and 12th for gas), in 2011 it was still the world’s seventh largest exporter of oil (exporting over 1.5 million barrels of oil per day) and in 2010 was the second largest exporter of gas (100 billion sm³ of gas per year).

There are 10 “oil commandments” that govern Norwegian oil policy. These commandments, or the Norwegian model, essentially focus on establishing the oil and gas industry in such a way as to benefit the whole country. Since Norway began recovering oil and gas in 1971:

  • They have recovered more than 7,000 billion NOK worth of oil and gas
  • More than 200,000 people are employed due to the industry (though that number has definitely taken a hit since the recent drop in oil prices)
  • The current oil fund is worth more than 2,000 billion NOK or approximately 500,000 NOK (64,444 USD) per Norwegian

While prosperity has certainly come to Norway, studies on the country’s happiness levels show that the huge increase in wealth in recent decades has had a small impact on overall happiness. In other words, money isn’t everything.

One oil related government objective that Abby and I found interesting was the idea that “every house should be occupied in every corner of the country.” Basically, people shouldn’t feel obligated to move to the city in search of jobs. Oil revenues have been used to help ensure that wealth is extended to every corner of the country, and although this is an expensive policy, Norwegians are quite happy to help ensure that smaller communities thrive. To give you a better idea of how spread out and sparsely populated Norway is:

  • In January 2010 Norway had a population density of 16 people per square kilometer (the second lowest in Europe)
  • Norway has 430 local authorities, 43 of which don’t encompass an urban area, 130 with a population of less than 2,500, and 25 with a population of less than 1,000
  • Less than 100 settlements in Norway have a population of more than 5,000  people

Abby and I also had fun looking at some of the model oil rigs and climbing into some of the diving equipment. Personally I found the diving rigs to be a bit too claustrophobic, which wasn’t helped when I learned that in order to work at depths of more than 50 m (164 ft) divers have to go through a 12 hour saturation process for their bodies to adjust to the pressure. In Norway, divers are only allowed to work for 14 days at those depths, and afterwards it takes about 3-6 days before the body recovers and returns to normal pressure. This sounded wholly unappealing to me. Clearly oil extraction is not my calling.

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Once we finished up at the museum, we took a drive out to Stavanger’s Swords in Rock monument, or Sverd i fjell, before heading over to the airport. It was there that we realized that we were on the same flight. My supposedly direct flight back to Trondheim was really a flight to Trondheim with a pitstop in Bergen. Turns out the flight to Bergen is so short (25 minutes) that it hardly makes a difference to stop in Bergen and drop off and pick up new passengers, than it does to just fly to Trondheim directly.

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Oil and Alternative Energy

Oil is something that is very salient in the minds of Norwegians, and it is oftentimes something that can literally dominate the Norwegian landscape.* I’ve seen more than my fair share of Statoil offices. 

Yet Norway has a convoluted relationship with oil. This makes sense when you consider that Norway is one of the countries at the forefront of encouraging environmental change; yet it is a country that has nearly a fifth of its gross domestic product (GDP) based on the offshore oil and gas industry. Oil is the resource that propelled this once cash strapped nation into spectacular wealth. A fact that Norwegians are acutely aware of. 

Oil was originally discovered in Norway in 1969, and the government has taken great care to manage this resource and the resulting wealth ever since. Norway’s oil wealth was originally used to develop Norway’s poor infrastructure and was then used to pay off the country’s debt. Once this was completed in 1995, the Norwegian Petroleum Fund was established. The fund was created to invest in the wellbeing of future Norwegians and to help support the country’s aging population. Considering the objective of the fund, its name was later changed to the Government Pension Fund. 

The fund itself has its own fascinating restrictions. Fund managers are only allowed to invest the fund in businesses outside of Norway in order to safeguard the local economy. Furthermore, funds can only be invested in ethical companies and countries. For example, companies that have a poor environmental track record or countries that have human rights violations cannot be invested in. A portion of Norway’s annual budget can come from the Government Pension Fund, but this portion caps out at a measly four percent. Granted four percent of a $845 billion is still pretty sizable (Reuters).  

The fund is one of the things that very clearly demonstrates the long term view that Norwegians have adopted towards oil. Aware that their oil supply is finite, Norwegians are stockpiling their wealth in preparation for the day when their oil runs out. In the meantime, they have adopted a responsible approach towards trying to create a more responsible and ethical world, even as they harm the environment through the oil industry. Everyone is aware of the irony.

Outside of oil, Norway is committed to combating climate change. In 2007, Norway pledged to become carbon neutral and have zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Although Norway has fallen in Yale’s Environmental Performance Index,** it is still doing quite well and was ranked 10 out of 178 countries in the 2014 rankings (the United States was 33 in case you were wondering). Almost none of Norway’s energy comes from fossil fuels. An impressive 56% comes from renewable energy sources and about 99% of its total power production is hydroelectric (intpow). Norway has even figured out how to burn trash to create energy (BBC).

Working at NTNU this past semester has also shown me that a significant percentage of my generation is dedicated to working in alternative energy. In my course, Academic Writing and Communication for Engineers, a significant number of my approximately 110 person class was writing their engineering theses on alternative energy. In their weekly writing, many of them would write about the importance of finding an alternative to oil. Most of these engineers were focused on hydropower or wind power, but there were also a few working on solar power. Even my students who were planning on going into the oil industry spent some time writing about reducing the environmental impact of oil.

So while Norway is committed to weaning itself off of oil, it is definitely still a process. The recent fall in oil prices has left its mark on Norway, and an estimated 40,000 jobs are on the chopping block as many oil companies cut back their operations and shut down projects (Bloomberg). The road ahead may be rocky, from what I can see, it looks like Norway is doing a great job of trying to navigate it.

*Random aside: I would say that an industry equally important to the Norwegian psyche would probably be fishing, specifically cod. I cannot emphasize enough the Norwegian obsession with cod. Cod liver oil is the equivalent of the Norwegian fountain of youth and considered a cure all for basically everything. Many Norwegians have a tablespoon of cod liver oil every day, and it’s not uncommon to see or hear the phrase “In Cod We Trust” (as opposed to “In God We Trust”).

**At this point even my competitive Harvard spirit admits that Fale manages to get things right every once in a blue moon.

The Svalbard Museum

My second day in Svalbard was much more low key. This time I was able to see more of the town simply because there was more daylight, and when I say daylight I really mean twilight. After about a 40 minute walk, Sarah and I made it to the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) and Sarah dropped me off at the adjoining Svalbard Museum.

The museum was great and full of useful information (pretty much everything below is taken from informational slides in the museum). Svalbard was originally seen as international and communal land; however, with the rise of the coal mining industry it became important that there be a governing body that could settle disputes. Things were finally established at the end of World War I with the Svalbard Treaty. In the treaty, Norway was given “absolute and unrestricted sovereignty over Svalbard.” However there are a few restrictions on this sovereignty. Norway is required to give the citizens and companies of the Svalbard Treaty signatories (as of 2005 this includes Afghanistan, Albania, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, France, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Holland, Hungary, Iceland, India, Italy, Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, South Africa, The Dominican Republic, USA and Venezuela) equal rights regarding:

  • Entrance to and residence on Svalbard
  • Fishing, hunting, and trapping
  • Maritime, industrial, mining and commercial activities
  • Acquisition and utilization of property and mineral rights

Norway is still allowed to regulate the rights above, it just isn’t allowed to discriminate against a particular country. Svalbard itself is under the jurisdiction of the sysselmann, or the governor. The governor is not elected by those living on Svalbard, and is a part of the Norwegian administrative system. Fun fact: even though the sysselmann is part of a bureaucratic hierarchy, apparently the status of the sysselmann is the same as that of the king of Norway.

Because Svalbard is in some senses an international territory, the taxes and fees that are collected on Svalbard can only be used to benefit Svalbard’s residents. There is income tax on Svalbard, but there is not VAT (Value Added Tax) or fiscal taxes. The Norwegian government also helps subsidize the Svalbard budget.

Right now about 60% of Svalbard is covered by glaciers. That’s 36,600 kmof land covered in about 7,000 km3
of ice. Svalbard’s glaciers and mountains add new dangers to living in Svalbard, mainly in the form of crevasses (people will occasionally fall in them when they are covered with winter snow) and avalanches. Yes, the total number of things I could severely hurt myself with or die from on Svalbard was at about four (frostbite/cold, polar bears, crevasses, avalanches). It felt good to be alive on Svalbard.

Svalbard was discovered as Northern European nations looked to find a Northwest passage to the East. They didn’t find such a passage, but they did find whales, seals, and walruses. Whale and seal products slowly became more popular as the European demand for oil increased. In order to meet this demand, whaling was developed and in 1612 organized whaling came to Svalbard.

Until the 17th century, whaling was done near Svalbard’s coasts and inside the fjords. As whaling continued year after year, more permanent settlements were slowly built. In order to actually catch a whale, numerous boats were used. The whales were essentially hit multiple times with harpoons and then sailors waited until the whales tired out from fighting the sailors and from blood loss. The whale was eventually dragged back to shore where it was finished off and then processed for oil. You can get an idea of what these settlements looked like how whaling worked from the pictures below.

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Svalbard was originally located down by the equator, which is what allowed it to develop coal deposits. Once whaling and trapping died down in Svalbard, coal mining gradually began to replace it; however, the mining industry encountered low oil prices in the 1970s. The price of coal was so low that in order to save Store Norske, the big Norwegian mining company on Svalbard, the Norwegian government had to buy nearly all of its shares in 1976.

Because the company was now owned by the State, it became politically necessary for Longyearbyen to transition from being a company town to being a family friendly town. Normal welfare and public services were introduced in Svalbard starting in 1975, and the State introduced or expanded education, hospitals, the postal system, administrative system, and telecommunications. These days the services offered on Longyearbyen exceed those found in some of the more rural areas in mainland Norway. Though with regards to healthcare, there is only one doctor that services the approximately 2,000 people living on Svalbard. What really helped normalize Longyearbyen however was the opening of the airport in 1974, effectively ending Svalbard’s long periods of isolation.

Things have continued to expand since the 1970s. In the 1980s, the coal industry was again hit with a crisis. This prompted the development of more businesses on Svalbard, particularly those related to research, tourism, trade, and services. The university, UNIS, was established in 1993.

Right now, Svalbard is considered more of a research town than a mining town (they actually have super fast fiber optic Internet due to all of the research that goes on). In fact, coal prices hit another low this year, causing the coal company to be in the red. Apparently this prompted the company to make a joke presentation at this year’s holiday party proposing that the government replace the coal industry with the timber industry. How can you tell this is a joke? There are no trees on Svalbard. How’s that for an arctic desert? But even though it’s a silly presentation, it does speak to a wider problem. As coal gets more and more expensive to mine (if I remember correctly there is only one working mine out of the ten that exist near Longyearbyen) the communities on Svalbard will have to start coming up with alternative ways to get fuel.

Once I finished reading through all of this history, I had a fun time looking around at some of the animals on display. The polar bear was huge in reality. On all fours it came up to about my shoulder (around just over four feet/1.2 meters tall). Sarah actually told me that one of the professors she works with was responsible for shooting it. Apparently he was so against shooting the bear he waited until it was 1.5 meters away before shooting.

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After that we went back to the barracks and spent the rest of the day lounging around one of the common rooms. I had a good time talking to some of the other students and working on some of my knitting. Guys, I’m getting better! Finished fox scarf featured below. Pattern here with the English version towards the bottom.

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One thing that I found interesting was talking about the upcoming solar eclipse. The eclipse is scheduled to happen on March 20th and Longyearbyen is one of the only places in the world where you can see the complete eclipse. This has sparked a huge wave of tourism to the island. The office of the sysselmann has estimated that approximately 50,000 people are flying into the island to see the eclipse. The population of Longyearbyen is just 2,000 people, so it’s literally 25 times more people coming to the island. This also means that the government is worried about people having places to stay. There is one hotel in Longyearbyen that hasn’t even been finished yet (it doesn’t even have walls or a roof) that is completely booked for the eclipse. One friend told me that when she stayed at an airbnb in Longyearbyen, her hostess told her that her house had been booked for the eclipse five years in advance. People are making a fortune renting out their houses, and apparently most rooms are going for tens of thousands of kroner a night. At this point hotels are charging a minimum of 10,000 NOK a night (1322.36 USD/night). The government is concerned that many people will arrive and not only lack a place to stay, but will also lack the necessary protective gear and clothing to survive the cold. There is currently talk of opening the local gym and using that as a place where people can sleep. All in all it seems a bit ridiculous, even more so since the weather on Svalbard is so finicky. There is a good chance that all of these people will show up and that it won’t be a clear day. But oh well. I guess that’s the risk that people take.

Referendum Continued

Today is the day that Scotland votes on independence! In a wonderful twist of fate, I was able to pay a second visit to the Byåsen class studying the British Empire (and will hopefully continue to do so for the rest of the semester). Most of the class was pretty split on whether or not Scotland should be independent, but when put to a vote 60% voted no to independence. When I talked to the students who voted no, most of them voted that way because they were worried about Scotland’s oil reserves running out and the Scottish economy tanking. Many of them also felt as though the “Yes Scotland” campaign had simply seized onto the idea of becoming rich through Scottish oil reserves and done a poor job of focusing on nationalistic reasons for becoming independent. As for those who voted yes, those students sympathized with the Scottish desire to be independent and compared it to Norway’s independence from Sweden in 1905. The class seemed to have a really good time discussing the issue, although they strongly objected to the teacher, Maria, putting on bagpipe music in the background. They seemed to mind the bagpipes a bit less when we watch John Oliver’s take on Scotland’s independence:

My students also seemed to enjoy looking at Alan Bissett’s scathing poem “Vote Britain.” Many of the students felt that Bissett’s critique was effective; however, when I asked if it would have swayed their vote, many of them said no. I was personally struck by the line “Vote for Glasgow having the highest knife-crime rate and lowest life expectancy in Europe” and his use of Rupert Brooke’s World War I poem, quoting “There is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.” While I’m personally on the side of the “Better Together” campaign (even though as John Oliver points out it’s a terrible name), I do think that Bissett points out some very valid grievances in his poem. Well, I suppose we’ll see what happens tomorrow morning!