In a 2011 New York Times article, Michael E. Webber, associate director for the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas, offered a grim perspective of North Dakota’s gas flaring habit:
“North Dakota is not as bad as Kazakhstan, but this is not what you would expect a civilized, efficient society to do: to flare off a perfectly good product just because it’s expensive to bring to the market.”
This didn’t sit well with former senator and gubernatorial candidate Ryan Taylor. Unsatisfied his home state being called “not as bad,” Taylor looked to the home of his ancestors to offer North Dakota a new title to work towards: As Good as Norway.
Taylor has since dedicated a fellowship through the Bush Foundation to studying the ways in which North Dakota could use Norway’s successful oil industry as an economic and political model. Through his fellowship, Taylor has traveled to his motherland to meet with Norwegian scientists, lawmakers and industry representatives in hopes of gaining insight about their thriving oil economy.
By the end of his two-year fellowship, Taylor plans to publish a study that outlines what lessons North Dakota can learn from Norway’s oil model. He led a presentation and discussion on his findings in Fargo last week, appropriately located at Kringen Sons of Norway Lodge.
During his presentation, Taylor explained that when his grandfather emigrated to the United States from Norway in 1910, his homeland was wracked with poverty. The country experienced quite the economic turn-around in the 70s, when it began oil production from its Ekofisk platform in the North Sea.
Today, Norway ranks as theseventh net exporter and third largest net exporter of natural gas in the world. It also boasts an oil fund totaling more than $800 billion. It was these financial successes—along with the ancestral connection—that beckoned Taylor’s initial interest in Norway’s oil practices and policies.
“We have a business connection “I think it’s just one that we can connect to also because we have the genetic lineage that 30 percent of people in North Dakota share.”
In the midst of its new oil strikes, Norwegian parliament established the 10 Commanding Achievements—dubbed “Norways 10 Oil Commandments”— which the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate credits the for shaping the country’s oil production policies.
Though cultural and geographic differences between North Dakota and Norway render some “commandments” more applicable than others, Taylor believes they can create a model for North Dakota that’s “as good as Norway’s.”
“Some of those commandments are unique to a country that has [state-owned] minerals out in the ocean versus private minerals in someone’s pasture here,” Taylor said. “It’s like anything within the public area that it’s probably not something that happens easily, but there’s always points of agreement, there’s intersects. Wherever we’re at in North Dakota—east or west, democratic or republican—we should find the things that we agree upon.”
Though gas flaring regulations can be a source of contention stateside, Taylor believes most North Dakotans could agree that oil revenues should be invested in the state. During his presentation, Taylor explained that both North Dakota and Norway are at risk for Dutch Disease—an economic phenomenon when one industry booms and others have to compete for labor and resources.
According to Taylor, Norway’s economic model could provide North Dakota with useful insight for warding off Dutch Disease and saving wisely: “Do we invest in infrastructure and education? Those are things we could probably agree on. How do we maintain the industries that have to compete with the boom?”
Trim back flaring
Taylor identified a “distaste for waste” as a trait North Dakotans share with Norwegians. Norway’s fifth commandment—“Flaring of exploitable gas on the Norwegian Continental Shelf must not be accepted except during brief periods of testing”—all but bans gas flaring, or burning off excess gas during oil production.
Taylor said he that he doubts a similar ban is feasible for North Dakota at this point, though it does set an example for efforts to reduce flaring.
“We’re struggling with the flaring issue continuously,” he said. “We’re kind of tip-toeing into reductions that we could get us to 10 percent. I think there will be a point in our future where we’ll look back on our history and say, ‘How much did we waste?’ We’re looking for resources to heat our homes.”
In its 44 years of oil production, Norway has cultivated a careful balance of maintaining and protecting a healthy environment and economy. Taylor credits this successful duality to both the Norwegian affinity for Friluftsliv— “open-air life” in nature—and their indifference towards the stigma of being “tree-huggers.”
“I carry some political scars, but I never thought in this last campaign I’d have radio heads saying I was a tree-hugger,” said Taylor. “The trees I respected were my father’s, who had planted with soil conservation to block the damn wind. What’s wrong with that? I think the respect for the land is something North Dakotans have always had because we’re an agrarian state of homesteaders. Protecting the land does mean protecting the environment.”
Taylor, a Democrat, also believes Norway provides an excellent model for cooperation between bipartisan interests—something he feels the U.S. struggles with:
“Maybe it’s somewhat of the national spectrum of polarization where we get in our trenches and we throw our grenades at each other and assign names to each other, but that really doesn’t help us find the answers.”
Updated March 11, 2015.