As oil dollars slowly evaporate, Norway looks to gas

Thirty-three years of prosperous oil production have secured Norway a seat among the world's richest nations, but with its petroleum reserves slowly slipping, the country has begun sniffing out the promise held by its abundant natural gas resources.

Thirty-three years of prosperous oil production have secured Norway a seat among the world's richest nations, but with its petroleum reserves slowly slipping, the country has begun sniffing out the promise held by its abundant natural gas resources.

After long turning its nose up at natural gas, and instead concentrating on more lucrative petroleum production, Stavanger, Norway's hydrocarbon capital, seems to have caught a whiff of the lush future gas production has in store.

With new gas fields accounting for the three largest ongoing development projects on the Norwegian continental shelf, gas appears to be shoving its way into the forefront of the country's energy production.

"The move from oil to gas is happening at a geological level: 40 percent of our oil resources have already been tapped, while the number isn't even 13 percent for our gas fields," Gunnar Berge, president of the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate, told AFP.

Since getting into the petroleum production business in the 1970s, Norway has made hundreds of billions of euros off its oil. That income has made it possible for the once struggling Nordic nation to become, according to the UN, the country with the world's highest standard of living.

Ever since the 1990s, the Norwegian government has opted to place nearly all of its oil revenues into a special fund aimed at solving future problems like paying for Norway's ever increasing number of retirees.

By the end of 2003, the fund, which is invested in the international stock and bond market, was valued at 845 billion kroner (122 billion dollars, 102 billion euros). That corresponds to 187,778 kroner for each of Norway's 4.5 million inhabitants.

And the North Sea is apparently prepared to just keep on giving.

"We have enough petroleum for another 50 years and natural gas for at least 100 years," Norwegian Oil and Energy Minister Einar Steensnaes said.

But Norway's petroleum industry, currently pumping out three million barrels a day, has clearly peaked and even begun to decline.

The government has admittedly given the green light for oil exploration in the once off-limits Barents Sea off of Norway's northern coast. It is also considering revising its petroleum product taxes, which today erode 78 percent of the industry's margins, in an attempt to encourage oil companies to tap into more marginal fields which until now would not have been profitable.

These measures still do not totally compensate for the depletion of the largest oilfields, however.

By 2010, Norway's ever growing gas exports are therefore expected to exceed its petroleum exports.

That's actually a stroke of luck, since the global demand for gas is predicted to surpass the demand for "black gold" by 2020.

Norway is already the third largest natural gas exporter in the world, and the second largest in Europe, where it mainly provides gas to Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

"The customers in France or in Germany choose Norwegian gas over Russian or Algerian gas because the supply is regarded as more secure," said Oeystein Noreng, an energy expert at the Oslo Business School.

The parliament's decision earlier this month to give the go ahead for the development of the second largest gas field in Norway's history, Ormen Lange, along with the world's longest underwater gas pipeline, also opens the way for Norway to supply gas to Britain, the world's second largest market after the US.

"We have an ideal geographic location in proximity to the European continent, but also to the British Isles," two markets that Norway is or soon will be linked to through massive underwater gas pipelines, Berge said.

Oil companies working in Norway are also preparing to focus more of their efforts on gas.

"Today, we produce 70 percent oil and 30 percent gas. This will change noticeably over the course of the next few years, with the ratio probably moving towards 50-50," Erling Oeverland, interim chief executive of Statoil, Norway's leading energy company, said.

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