Production of oil in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea began on the
Ekofisk field in 1971. Now, on the threshold of a new century, Norway holds the
position of the worlds second largest exporter of oil after Saudi Arabia
and is expected to maintain this high level of production for several years to
come. After all, the country has only reached the halfway point of its
so-called Oil Age.
By Jan Hagland
It is not without a certain amount of excitement about industry and energy
strategy that Norway is entering what has been dubbed the Gas Century: natural
gas is becoming an increasingly sought-after and eco-acceptable energy
commodity. Norwegian exports of gas to countries in Europe will nearly triple
from now until 2005, in competition with gas from Russia and Algeria and other
countries. Norwegian gas exports to Europe nevertheless have a 90-year
Norways position as the second largest exporter of oil may seem
remarkable when you consider how much of the worlds oil is found on the
Norwegian continental shelf: Only one per cent of the worlds reserves are
located in Norwegian territory. Why Norway ranks so high is because it exports
a total of 90 per cent of its oil production.
The situation for gas is a little different: Norway has three per cent of
the worlds gas reserves and by 2005 will be one of the five largest
producers of gas in the world.
In a European context, however, Norways position as an oil and gas
nation is substantially greater, in that Norway sits on approximately half of
all remaining petroleum resources in Europe.
The Norwegian continental shelf is four times as large as mainland Norway
and accounts for one-third of Europes continental shelf.
The development of the Norwegian continental shelf has taken place by leaps
and bounds: today it takes only three days to produce as much oil as was
produced in all of 1971 the first year of oil production from the
Norwegian sector of the North Sea. Norways Oil Age is commonly referred
to as the "oil adventure".
A long Norwegian maritime industry tradition, featuring some of the
worlds largest fisheries and shipping fleets operated from Norway, has
been extended with the most modern technology needed to utilize the
oceans resources today.
The numbers speak for themselves: In 1998 oil and gas made up one-third of
Norways total exports, over 40 per cent of total investments, 12 per cent
of all value creation in the country and 13 per cent of the gross domestic
There can be no doubt that Norway lives in a so-called petroleum economy,
with all of the advantages and disadvantages this entails, e.g. fluctuating oil
More than 90,000 people work in the oil industry today. Around 20,000 are
shift workers on the oil and gas platforms in the North and Norwegian Seas,
Norways two main oil and gas-producing areas.
Government petroleum fund for the future
The Norwegian government is an active participant in and co-owner of
Norwegian petroleum operations, both through the state-owned oil company
Statoil and the governments direct financial involvement. Norway
currently enjoys huge revenues from oil, but in order to meet economic
challenges after its oil runs out, part of the state oil revenues are set aside
in a so-called petroleum fund.
In other words, Norways petroleum wealth is being converted into
financial assets in order to safeguard the future of the Norwegian welfare
Despite intense exploration, no discoveries have made and developed at this
time in the third main areathe Barents Sea in the Arctic part of Norway.
Plans to develop the so-called Snøhvit field on the Tromsø
field are in hand and can be realized in a few years. Snøhvit would then
become the first fixed point in the so-called northern areas, where substantial
gas reserves have been found on the Russian side of the Barents Sea.
Cooperation in the petroleum sector is one of two subjects currently being
discussed by Norway and Russia in connection with the negotiations over the
sector line in the Barents Sea.
As big as Texas
Norway has been looking for oil and gas in the north since 1980 but has yet
to find appreciable deposits. Despite the disappointments, oil companies in
Norway will continue to explore the Far North, with its vast potential. The net
exploration area in the Barents Sea makes up two-thirds of the Norwegian
continental shelf and is equal in size to Texas.
The Norwegian Petroleum Directorate calculates that 27 per cent of the
undiscovered petroleum resources on the Norwegian continental shelf are located
in the Barents Sea, which must be regarded as the frontier region of the
Norwegian continental shelf compared with the North and Norwegian Seas.
North Sea biggest
The North Sea will for many years nevertheless remain the hub of the
Norwegian petroleum industry while the development of the Norwegian Sea
continues. The Ekofisk, Frigg, Oseberg and Snorre fields in the North Sea are
some of the most expensive and technically complicated industrial projects in
the world. All have been financed via large joint ventures involving the
worlds largest oil companies.
From 1971 to 1996 a total of NOK 1,500 billion was invested in exploration,
construction and operations on the Norwegian continental shelf. This is
equivalent to what it takes to run the entire country for three years at the
Similar investments are expected from now until 2025 provided the price of
oil stays at a "reasonable level" by Norwegian standards.
Started in Groningen
The discovery of an enormous gas field on land in the Dutch province of
Groningen in 1959 prompted the worlds largest oil companies to prospect
for oil and gas in the North Sea: Geologists believed that the same geology had
to stretch out into the North Sea.
Western Europe was already then a growing oil marketand now gas from
Groningen would create the foundation for a gas market in Western Europe too.
Already one of the worlds largest, it is destined to grow even bigger in
the next century.
Still oil and gas
Calculations indicate that fossil fuels, particularly oil and gas, will
dominate the worlds energy markets for 40 to 80 years into the next
It is precisely during this period that Norway will produce most of its
remaining oil and gas deposits. Fresh resource estimates from the Norwegian
Petroleum Directorate show that only one-third of the oiland only nine
per cent of the gasbelieved to exist on the Norwegian continental shelf
has been produced so far.
On the waiting list
The bulk of future production will for many years continue to come from the
56 oil and gas fields already in production in the North and Norwegian Seas.
In addition, 136 small and medium-sized discoveries are waiting to be
developed. Thirty of them will be developed over the next 10 years and a
further 50 in the subsequent decade, according to fresh estimates from the
Norwegian Petroleum Directorate.
From the very start in 1966when the worlds oil explorers
arrived in Norwaythe North Sea was described as the "worlds
harshest exploration area for oil and gas".
The development of Norways oil riches involved considerable trial and
error before the exploration platforms and production facilities were adapted
to the North Seas challenging environmental conditions.
Taller than the Empire State Building
While equipment and know-how in the beginning had to come from the outside,
Norway gradually built up both competencies and technologies adapted to the
special conditions of the Norwegian continental shelf.
The linchpin in this process is the Condeep platforms, the gargantuan steel
and concrete production platforms which, if placed beside the worlds
largest and best-known buildings, would tower above the Eiffel Tower in Paris
or the Empire State Building in New York.
Norwegian concrete technology has also been employed in the worlds
first Arctic offshore oil developmentthe Hibernia field outside
Consequently, the North Sea quickly acquired a reputation as a laboratory
for developing offshore oil and gas technology. There is only one difference
between large land-based projects and todays offshore technology: the
installations are hidden from people by the sea. Only those working out on the
platforms can experience how far the boundaries of technology have been
stretched to pump oil and gas from the depths of the ocean.
A universe beneath the sea
Fantastic development has taken place within what can be called quieter
technology, e.g. seismic surveying and greater precision in and remote control
of drilling operations. Seismology is a type of ultrasound technique that makes
it possible to peer into the bottom of the ocean where oil and gas may have
been formed hundreds of millions of years ago, thousands of metres underneath
The knowledge amassed today about the ocean is so great that people talk
today about a "universe beneath the sea" in which not least petroleum
activities have brought about great progress, including on the Northeast
Atlantic continental shelf where Norway has extensive petroleum operations.
Another invisible technical experiment that has succeeded 100 per cent in
Norway is enhanced recovery. When oil production started on Ekofisk in 1971, it
was thought that only 17 per cent of the oil deposits present in the ground
could be recovered. Norway was unwilling to accept this and decided to
challenge natures own processes.
Thanks to the injection of water, gas, chemicals and horizontal drilling,
oil recovery on the Norwegian continental shelf currently averages 44 per cent;
the goal is 50 per cent and perhaps more if technological development continues
at its present pace over the next 10 years.
Enhanced recovery allows Norway to earn several hundred billion extra
kroner and has taken on greater importance other places in the world, including
Canada and the U.S.
Akin to space travel
The future challenge on the Norwegian continental shelf lies in developing
new more simple technology, even better drilling methods and seismic
technology, deepwater development, and having a major portion of operations run
by remote control on the seabed or down in the production wells. From a
technical and economic point of view, this is just as challenging and demanding
as space travel.
Norways Oil Age began at a depth of 70 metres in the southern part of
the North Seaand even the biggest and best companies with experience from
all over the world took a hammering from the North Sea in those initial years,
whether the depth was 70 or 100 metres.
Today the Norwegian oil industry has experience in drilling at depths of
1,200-1,300 metres in the Norwegian Sea and drilling is done to a depth of
5,900 metres at a distance of up to nine kilometres from the mother platform.
The whole operation is controlled and operated from fixed or floating
platforms on the surface of the ocean. A steadily increasing number of
production systems are being installed on the seabed and operated by remote
control using space technology principles.
Preparations are currently underway to develop the huge Ormen Lange gas
field in the Norwegian Sea, at a depth of 1,100 meters. Yet another epoch
awaits: deep water, as in rest of the world. This is the future facing a
country which for centuries has used the sea as an economic resource in
building up its prosperity through fishing and shipping.
The oil and gas epoch has already expanded and pushed all Norwegian
maritime skills and knowledge forwardwith more to come.
The sea rules
The preface to a major work about Norway states: "If people are to live
on the coast, they have to come to terms with the ocean."
Norway and Norwegians have been doing this for centuries. The oil and gas
age is nevertheless a distinct epoch, whose scope may perhaps take another 100
years to fully comprehend.
A major element in the development of the Norwegian offshore oil industry
has been safety: the safety of workers and the safeguarding of the environment,
assets and regular production. Sprinkled like islands throughout Norwegian
ocean areas, which are also a gigantic larder, are rows and clusters of oil and
gas platforms that are in essence highly productive floating factories manned
by thousands of oil workers from all over Norway.
Like the Vikings, mariners and fishermen before them, Norwegians have
learned to relate to the sea in a new way. Oil and gas have set new parameters
for Norway, and the country has risen to the challenge.
The author of the article, Jan Hagland, is director of information for
the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate.
Produced for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by Nytt fra Norge
The author is responsible for the contents of the article.
Reproduction permitted. Printed in November 1999.
Reproduced with permission from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.