Equinor bets on offshore wind to lower carbon intensity of its oil

Kari Lundgren, Bloomberg November 21, 2023

(Bloomberg) — On a platform 140 kilometers (87 miles) off the coast of Norway, Crown Prince Haakon held two power cables connected to scale models: the first was a wind turbine, the second an oil rig.

Behind him, the world’s biggest floating offshore wind farm was just visible on the horizon, an engineering marvel that cost more than $660 million and took five years to complete. “By connecting these cables, we are connecting to the future,” the prince said before linking plug and socket. Tiny lights flickered to life inside the miniature oil rig, marking the official start of the planet’s first wind-powered offshore oil platform.

Each wind turbine at the Hywind Tampen offshore park weighs as much as the Statue of Liberty and is linked to the seabed using powerful suction anchors. For Equinor ASA, the state-owned oil and gas giant that built them, they’re part of a bigger plan to use electricity to slash the carbon footprint of its product.

The pioneering modernity, though, is really about clinging to the past. Norway is betting that zeroing out emissions from oil production will help it meet internationally agreed climate targets while future-proofing an industry that’s made it one of the richest countries in the world. But even if it succeeds, Equinor’s oil exports will continue to have a devastating impact on the Earth — those hydrocarbons alone result in five times Norway’s domestic emissions when they’re burned overseas.

It’s a vision for what counts for a greener world that’s being put forward by the global oil and gas industry. Saudi Aramco is investing in low-carbon hydrogen and U.S. oil companies such as Occidental Petroleum Corp. argue they can produce “net-zero oil” through carbon capture. The approach is set to get plenty of airtime at the COP28 climate summit that starts later this month in the United Arab Emirates, itself one of the world’s largest oil producers. 

“If you can operate without producing emissions, then you have a long-term picture,” Terje Aasland, Norway’s oil and gas minister, said in an interview. “We have to address the climate challenges and we will be able to do that if we involve the oil and gas industry.”

The idea that the companies responsible for vast amounts of planet-warming emissions accumulated in the atmosphere should steer the green transition has been harshly criticized by diplomats, experts and activists who want a quicker move away from dirty energy. Still, Sultan Al Jaber, the UAE minister and oil executive leading the COP28 talks, has made clear he wants to work with fossil fuel producers, not against them. The world will need some oil and gas for decades yet, so it makes sense for that supply to be as low carbon as possible.

Norway, a progressive Scandinavian country where electric vehicles dominate the roads even as oil profits sustain its welfare state, is a case study of what an industry-led green transition might look like.

The nation has been steadily electrifying its oil production for years. East of Hywind Tampen sits Troll A, an oil rig that has been drawing power from land since at least 1996. Today, there are some 20 fields along the Norwegian coast that do the same, a shift that supplants power sources that would otherwise have released over 3 million metric tons of carbon annually. There’s a $1.2 billion plan to electrify Equinor’s Hammerfest liquified natural gas facility, one of the largest in Europe.

Any initial skepticism from Norway’s biggest oil and gas companies — Equinor, Aker BP ASA and Var Energi ASA — has dissipated. “The reality is that having power from shore makes installations cheaper to run, more efficient and easier to maintain,” said Aker BP Chief Executive Officer Karl Johnny Hersvik. “From a really fundamental, industrial perspective, it’s just common sense.”

About 90% of Norway’s electricity comes from hydropower, allowing its companies produce oil that Oslo-based Rystad Energy says has some of the lowest carbon intensity in the world, at about 7 kilograms of carbon dioxide per barrel. The international average is 16 kilograms of CO2 per barrel. The Johan Sverdrup oil field only generates about 0.67 kilograms of CO2 per barrel thanks to two subsea electrical cables that keep it running. Last May, Equinor added a line tabulating emissions to cargo certificates from its Mongstad refinery to distinguish its fuel as more environmentally friendly.

Knut Simon Helland, who oversees emissions cuts for Equinor, says his job is as important as Norway’s transition to electric cars. Aside from the big electrification push, his team has made smaller changes: modifying how drinking water is produced offshore, cutting the volume of water injected into wells and honing in on ways to minimize flaring. That adds up to some 2 million tons in carbon saved over 10 years. Equinor released more than 11 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2022.

All those efforts aim to make Norway’s oil more appealing in a world that aims to cut consumption of dirty fuels. “If you want to save the world, you need to have two thoughts in your head: A. Reduce the use of oil and gas, and B. Increase production on the Norwegian continental shelf,” Helland said.

Equinor’s push to go electric has sparked debate in Norway as it faces a looming power crisis.

The embrace of EVs, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and becoming more closely linked to continental Europe’s power market have all driven electricity demand, and prices, higher. Water levels at the reservoirs that keep Norway’s hydropower flowing receded to their lowest level in over a decade last year amid a drought driven by climate change.

Building wind turbines on land, the most obvious alternative source of renewable energy, is mired in controversy. Many Norwegians view the structures as unsightly, while others say the development process has run roughshod over the rights of Indigenous Sami reindeer herders. Oil and gas companies also plan to invest more than $30 billion developing new oil sources, which could monopolize people and resources in the coming years, making it all the harder to recruit engineers who could kickstart green industries such as batteries and hydrogen electrolyzers.

All of this has fueled questions over whether sending power offshore makes sense. The petroleum sector drew 9 terawatt hours of electricity from land in 2022, about 7% of total national consumption, and that’s expected to double before the end of the decade. Norway’s grid operator Statnett predicts a shortfall in electricity could hit as soon as 2027.

In the lead-up to municipal elections in September, party leaders from both the far left and far right agreed — for different reasons — that electrification was costly and a poor way to achieve climate targets. A government-appointed committee tasked with exploring Norway’s options for decarbonizing recently concluded that the nation should avoid using power from land to cut emissions.

It also raised an alternative very much out of the mainstream of public opinion: instituting a moratorium on production and development licenses until parliament approves a strategy for phasing out oil operations.

All the parties in Norway’s governing coalition support continued oil and gas production. Oil and gas wealth accounts for 24% of gross domestic product and is expected to pour $81 billion into state coffers in 2023. It is the source of a $1.4 trillion sovereign wealth fund that many are relying on to provide healthcare and pensions.

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store argues that the goal should be to “develop, not dismantle” the industry. While Norway’s oil output peaked in the early 2000s and no one expects it to reach those levels again, the country has pitched itself as a stable, long-term source of fuel for Europe.

Even Bellona, a prominent environmental group, is working with the oil industry. Its quibble with the government’s approach is that it’s too focused on electrification and not doing enough to bury carbon beneath the seabed. Christian Eriksen, a technical adviser at Bellona, says that’s the reality they have to work with. Even with the prospect that there might be a shortfall of electricity, he says, “there is no political appetite to demand that oil companies invest in developing alternative solutions.”

From a control room at Equinor’s offices in Bergen, technicians manage the shifting flows of electricity from Hywind Tampen alongside those operating the unmanned oil platform.

Among them is Ole Arild Larsen, the facility’s project manager and Equinor’s first employee for offshore wind in Norway. His father was an electrical engineer for the company who took him as a teenager to the same port where the foundations of the offshore wind turbines were built decades later. Final assembly was done in the village of Gulen, where his family is from and still owns a cabin.

Larsen used to manage the Snorre A platform, one of five now being partially powered by wind. He knows all too well how severe weather conditions can get out there. In the control room, a video feed from atop one of the turbines offers a rain-streaked view of a choppy North Sea. “The platform has outlived its design life,” Larsen says, but the wind project has bought it more time.

Even though it’s currently being used to extract dirty fuel, the project is an opportunity for Equinor to test offshore wind technology it hopes to roll out in places as far afield as California and Korea. “We are paving the way to show that floating offshore wind is possible,” Store, the prime minister, said in an interview. “That is our contribution for bringing emissions down.”

For many Norwegians, Equinor’s efforts to reduce its own emissions and develop technologies like offshore wind and carbon capture are a way of absolving its climate sins. But not everyone agrees.

“It’s used as an excuse to extend the oil age,” said Gina Gylver, a leader at non-governmental organization Nature and Youth. “This becomes make-up for our own emissions, while failing to address the problems and costs for nature and Indigenous people at home.”

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