The Arctic Environmental Responsibility Index

Profiles of Norwegian Science

Arctic Environmental Responsibility Index

Photo: Ilan Kelman
The Melkøya liquefied natural gas facility in Hammerfest, northern Norway.

Agder, Norway

As businesses and many Arctic peoples scramble for lucrative resources in the northern latitudes, with numerous others opposing, what can science offer? One initiative run by a Norwegian scientist contributes to understanding the companies involved: The Arctic Environmental Responsibility Index.

Indra Overland from the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs in Oslo led a team of nine others from across Europe, Canada, Russia, and Uzbekistan to rank expert perceptions of resource extraction companies in the Arctic. Through contacting people and vetting volunteers, they ended up with 173 experts from across 17 countries, of whom 40% are women and 60% are men.

The country with the most experts was Russia, at 26%. It should be noted that 17% were from countries not considered to be Arctic.

Most commonly, the experts worked in academia, because academic researchers typically have the most independence to evaluate others and to express their opinions openly. Yet all sectors were represented within the expert pool along with many residents of places with petroleum or mining operations.

For this index, the Arctic was defined as being north of the Arctic Circle. To be included, a company had to be working in these latitudes, no matter where the headquarters or shareholders sit. A total of 120 companies fit the criteria, covering all seven countries within the Arctic region.

To calculate the results, the researchers used a unique approach that Overland had previously developed. The experts ranked only the companies they knew, and they decided for themselves how to determine their individual rankings, rather than being given set criteria and trying to fit their views within those parameters. An algorithm developed by the scientists then combined all expert rankings into an overall ranking.

The ranking is entirely subjective, which is the point of being expert-based and giving the experts the freedom to make their own decisions about their assessments. The degree of disparity among opinions would not figure, and any common bias or typical misapprehensions across experts would not be evident.

In addition, the distance between different ranks is not known, only the order. It is possible that the 45th and 46th companies were perceived to be similar, while the 47th was well below the others.

The final list is nonetheless instructive, producing four main trends. 

Firstly, companies working in Alaska displayed the highest average rankings, followed by Norway. At the bottom of the average rankings remained companies working in Russia, with Finland placing second last. The top three companies all operate in Norway, while the bottom five are based in Russia.

Secondly, patterns with respect to company size were evident. Although it is not clear how company size is defined—criteria could be based on finances, employment, assets, or something else—large companies were ranked higher than small companies.

The rankings were examined in terms of company ownership, leading to the third trend, which showed that government-controlled companies did better than privately held ones. There are some ambiguities, however, such as companies for which most shares are owned by a government, although the company is effectively its own enterprise and is listed on the stock market.

The final trend is that oil and gas companies were perceived as being more environmentally responsible than mining companies. The top-ranked mining company comes in at eighth overall, although only one mining company sits among the bottom five.

The real question is how meaningful these results are. As an index of perceptions, it has high value, because the rankings are what the experts think. This is not saying that expertise is perfect, unanimous, or representative, but it is indicative of viewpoints from some of those closely monitoring and experiencing Arctic resource extraction.

Many experts, especially those working for companies and governments, could not participate in this work. Reasons included conflicts of interest and it not being within their role to judge themselves or others. Many Arctic peoples directly affected did contribute, although it would be premised on them having a high level of literacy in a language of the survey as well as internet access.

Fundamentally, no index, survey, questionnaire, or interview can or should be seen as objective or comprehensive. Different techniques and data complement each other to build a more complete picture.

As the scientists rightly explain in their study, comparing similarities and differences among indices and methods supports robustness and depth of understanding. We are then better equipped to seek science-based improvements for environmental responsibility in Arctic resource extraction.

Read scientific paper on the index:

This article originally appeared in the April 23, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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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.