«Shhh! We have a plan”

Haakon NormannHåkon Normann, PhD candidate
Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture

For a while, my eldest daughter’s favourite book was a simple little book that feature four characters attempting to catch a bird. Every time they see the bird they whisper: ”Shhh! We have a plan”. But despite several different plans, they never succeed in catching the bird (birds are after all not so easy to catch). As I have followed the recent debate about a need for transforming the Norwegian oil and gas sector, the same words have every now and then popped up in my head. ”Shhh! We have a plan”. Not so much because I see a plan. Rather, these words appear because I question whether our politicians have a feasible plan for how the Norwegian oil and gas sector can be transformed.

During the 2000s, the Norwegian Word “omstilling” (restructuring or changeover) has become increasingly visible in the Norwegian public debate – especially in the wake of lower oil prices during the last two years. The debate about “omstilling” is intimately related to a broader debate about sustainability transitions and industry transformation. Neither the current or previous government have earned much credibility when it comes to ability or willingness to transform the Norwegian oil and gas sector or contribute to a broader energy transition. In one instance, there will be talk about 1.5 degree targets, Paris and “the greatest challenge of our time” (another expression that has been overused since Al Gore and the IPCC won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007).

In the next instance, there will be talk about the need to keep the wheels turning in the oil and gas sector. Due to the latter, the government decided in August this year to start the 24th licencing round and once more flagged support for explorationactivity in the Barents Sea. This seemingly double communication can be provocative for some. At the same time, the government’s approach is understandable. The oil industry represents jobs and large state revenues. This puts pressure on any government. From sustainability transitions and innovation studies, we know that transitions are often met with resistance from established industries. This is partly because transitions challenge the
revenue base for established industries, and partly because established firms tend to innovate in areas that they are already familiar with. We can
therefore refer to the Norwegian industrial structure as path-dependent and locked in to a fossil based energy system. A major restructuring (or transition) of the fossil based energy system has two major implications. First, it requires a massive expansion of emission free alternatives. This is already happening, first and foremost driven by reduced costs related to electricity produced from solar and wind. This also provides an opportunity for so called “green growth”, and is something Norwegian industry might benefit from. Second, (and arguably more importantly) an energy transition will require a dismantling and ultimately discontinuation of the use of fossil fuels. This creates a dilemma for states with large fossil fuel reserves and strong ambitions on climate change.

The last few decades have seen the development of great tools within the field of innovation studies for studying technological development. We have accumulated pretty good knowledge about factors that can limit and accelerate the growth of new solutions such as emission free energy technologies. There has been less interest among innovation researchers to study how to unsettle established economic, social and political interests. However, in recent years several avenues have been opened up for analysing this aspect of transitions. I will briefly point to two of these. The first avenue is what is now referred to as «the politics of transitions». Transformation of established industries tends to be highly political. In this area it is therefore of interest to study how political processes influence transitions towards sustainability (see for instance Geels et al. 2016; Raven et al. 2016). Another interesting approach involves the study of how a mix of policies need to contribute towards the growth of new industries and to provide disincentives for investments in established industries (Kivimaa & Kern 2016). Both of these approaches are relevant for studying energy transitions in a Norwegian context.

I am certain that there are many in the leading positions in both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party (and maybe even in the Progress Party) who recognise the need to transform the oil and gas sector both from a business and climate perspective. I trust that many of these wish to introduce policies that contribute towards such a transformation. However, I am not convinced that they have a plan for how this can be achieved whilst at the same time maintain employment and state revenues at a reasonably acceptable level. I therefore think they need some help. Discontinuation through transformation is one area where innovation studies should be able to make a valuable contribution. If the field of innovation studies is to stay relevant in this area, we should try to better our understanding of how a financially sound and politically feasible transformation and discontinuation of established industries can come about.

This article was first published in the January 2017 edition of Teknovatøren.