When a runaway well spewed 5 million oily gallons into the North Sea last month, it shattered Norweigan complacency.
People here, especially those in authority, believed that Norway was the one producing nation that had completely mastered the international oil concerns working within its territory.
But in the wake of the runaway well disaster - now under control - fresh doubts have emerged over who is really in charge.
The Conservative Party is Norway's second-biggest and the most sympathetic to private enterprise and multinational corporations. But its chairman, Erling Nordvik, says:
"I am afraid that Phillips - because they know more than we know - has gotten a little too much power."
Phillips Petroleum of Bartlesville, Okla., owns the biggest share - 37 per cent - and operates the Ekofisk field in which the Bravo drilling platform lies. It was Bravo well No. 14 that polluted the North Sea for more than a week until it was finally capped April 30.
Gunnar Stalsett leads the Center Party, which speaks for farmers, the ecologically minded and those most suspicious of Norway's transformation into an industrial state. He says:
"We have been boasting that things are better handled in Norway, that the political nation commands this operation. But we need a new look. We have been led to think there was a real control when in fact things are being run under the interest of the international company - maximum profits in the shortest time."
Norway's minority Labor Party government strenuously denies this. One key ministry figure, who asked that his name not be used, said:
"In one sense the government sees that what is good for Phillips is good for Norway. It is quite clear we can't live in an antagonistic situation with the oil companies. But we are not a small country ruled by big oil companies."
Four years ago, when Norway was writing a tough tax code for the foreign oilmen, laying down the world's stiffest safety rules and creating its own integrated concern, Statoil, to gain vital expertise, there would have been little talk of identical interests.
The situation here should not be exaggerated. Oil-company influence over the Norwegian government is less than the strength of oil in the American government, the influence of Exxon and British Petroleum over Britain's government or the power of in OPEC lands.
[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] the seven major petroleum companies.
A new corporate levy on oil firms has recently been enacted here. Exploitation of the Stafjord field has been made far more costly by a new law compelling the private operator to erect a separate platform at sea for workers' living quarters, an added expense of nearly $500 million.
Even so, over the past four years the government has come to see many more things through oil-company eyes.
The handling of last month's disaster provided several examples:
The Phillips chief in Norway, Gordon Goering, and his public-relations aide, sat side-by-side with government officials and jointly gave reporters twice-daily briefings.
When reporters pressed to learn how long Phillips delayed telling the government of a major goof that delayed the well-capping for two days, Dag Meier-Handsen, a top official in the government agency supervising the industry, complained irritably: "I don't see the point of driving a wedge in between the government and Phillips at this point."
Phillips led the government and Environment Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland to believe that cleanup vessels were picking up 400 to 500 tons daily from the oil slick. Brundtland later acknowledged that the amount cleaned up was only half that.
Brundtland had blocked Phillips on another attempt to clean up the slick. Fearing the consequences for fish eggs and larvae, she resisted Phillips' efforts to apply a massive dose of chemicals to attack the slick and thus reduce the company's liability for possible shore pollution. Her colleague at the Ministry of Industry shut down production in the rest of the Ekosfisk field, despite Phillips opposition, largely at the insistence of the Left Socialist party, which supports the government.
The entire episode reflected, nevertheless, a degree of association between company and government that would have been unthinkable here in the past.
Norway, now enjoying the third-highest per-capita income in the world and soon to top all the tables, has become hooked on oil money. Even the limited exploitation so far of Ekofisk yields tax revenues of about $3 million a day, 8 per cent of the Norwegian budget. In four years, oil will pay for more than 20 per cent of all government outlays in this superwelfare state.
Careful, controlled exploitation of oil was the motto in the past. But more and more, the Labor and Conservative establishment here has moved to a company view of the appropriate pace. Last year's output was about 95 million barrels; the two big parties want to mutiply this more than five times to 630 million - about one-fourth Saudi Arabia's output.
Staalsett's Center and the Left Socialists would cut this almost in half, fearing its effects on green Norway, marine Norway and the labor force of traditional industry. Until the Bravo blowout, they were losing the argument.
The government had recently called for exploratory drilling in the wild and storm waters north of the 62d Parallel. "There is very little likelihood of a big blowout," the government insisted in a white paper written before Bravo.
Now drilling in the north has been postponed indefinitely and new drilling south of the 62d Parallel will be delayed. Bravo showdd that the companies cannot master blowouts in the North Sea quickly and that they lack the basic equipment to clean up a slick in rough waters.
Norwegians are also beginning to wonder whether the trickle of civil servants to oil-industry jobs could lead to the oil-company dominance they associate with U.S. regulatory agencies.
Fresh questions are raised about the "exemptions" oil companies are now given. One enables them to escape a new requirement in factories, the election by workers of a safety ombudsman who can shut off production.
The country is to go to the polls Sept. 12, and the election is already being called the "oil campaign."
Some observers here say that the Bravo affair could topple Premier Odvar Nordli.
Labor party politicians hope that by September the heat will have gone out of the affair and that the dropping of plans to enlarge exploitation will help mute it.
Whoever gains and loses, the blowout has caused a new skepticism toward oil companies.