Profiles of Norwegian science: Corporate social responsibility for Arctic oil

Photo: Ilan Kelman Northern Norway’s choice: Oil, beauty, or both?

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Northern Norway’s choice: Oil, beauty, or both?

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

The Arctic: The last earthly frontier for oil and gas, ripe for the taking! Or is it? Given that people have lived in these high latitudes for millennia, how open is the Arctic for resource extraction?

Debates have been raging in northern Norway, from Lofoten to Kirkenes—and then across the Russian border. We set out to research perspectives on Arctic petroleum, talking to people in Norway and Russia to compare views on both sides of the border. The Research Council of Norway funded us, a team of seven from London, Oslo, and Moscow.

Petroleum decisions are often driven by externals, including the national governments in Oslo and Moscow. Some environmentalists such as Greenpeace call for a moratorium on all Arctic petroleum exploration and extraction. Meanwhile, companies such as DNV GL are ready for the business they would receive in supporting northern operations.

With the private sector involved, including the Norwegian company Statoil, how much responsibility do they have to the people and environment when making oil and gas decisions in the north? Many companies answer “plenty,” devoting effort to “corporate social responsibility” (CSR).

CSR is promoted or criticized by many involved in or opposing Arctic petroleum exploration and extraction. A common understanding of CSR rarely emerges. Does CSR mean providing local jobs and avoiding major adverse consequences? Or does CSR mean banning operations in the Arctic?

Our research used CSR as a basis for understanding what Arctic peoples seek from petroleum exploration and extraction. We interviewed over one hundred people—indigenous and non-indigenous across the principal job sectors—in four locations.

Hammerfest, Norway, is the center for the first petroleum discovery to be developed in the Barents Sea. The offshore development, Snøhvit (Snow White), revitalized the town and area, with few being left out of the affluence.

The other three places are Russian. Murmansk had the promise of petroleum development, but then little happened. Expectations of jobs and wealth remain unfulfilled.

Nenets Autonomous Okrug (NAO), on the shoreline of the Barents and Kara Seas, and landlocked Komi Republic just south of NAO have both gained plenty of income from petroleum. The gains do not seem to have been shared equitably, with many social and environmental implications evident across the territories.

In all these places, local support for petroleum activity was generally high for most people and sectors affected. Certainly not unanimous but generally appreciative of the perceived, assumed, or actual job opportunities and short-term quality of life improvement attributed to the resource industry.

Yet those gaining directly from the industry while not immediately experiencing negative impacts were more inclined to be positive. In some cases, positive economic benefits resulted in greater tolerance of environmental risks, while not fully acknowledging potential social risks. The industry and government came under fire from locals for failing to support a more equitable distribution of economic benefits.

We also noticed differences in CSR language and culture. The phrase CSR comes from English and, generally, a Western context. It is translated into and used in Norwegian and Russian, but the understanding is not as straightforward as in English due to cultural interpretations.

Some thought that CSR means supporting a company’s employees for being environmentally friendly. Others sought sports and entertainment facilities for the entire community. Job opportunities were high on the agenda, with only a few people hoping for freebies.

The lessons are stark for companies aiming to keep communities on their side. Individuals differ, meaning that their needs, interests, and modes of expression differ. No community is homogenous.

Dealing with only leaders, elected or otherwise, cannot suffice to understand any group of people. Decision-makers and power brokers often reap the most benefits while being negatively affected the least.

If companies and governments truly wish to know on-the-ground opinions, then they need to consult people where they live, seeing how they live. Expecting everyone else to travel to attend formal consultations or official events is unrealistic.

Consistent interests do not appear within typical groupings, such as indigenous/non-indigenous or business/non-profit. Individuals have complex viewpoints, irrespective of how they are categorized.

A major influence on views of CSR and petroleum is direct experience, either positive or negative. Occasionally, some community members even sought more short-term benefits, clashing with companies who wish to provide more of a positive legacy.

No one in industry, government, non-profit organizations, or communities should make assumptions about CSR or accept stereotypes about communities’ desires and needs. Instead, so much is local and mechanisms for reconciling differences might be needed.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 12, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.