with Christine Sagen Helgø, Mayor of Stavanger, City of Stavanger
How has your experience as Mayor for the last twelve months compared with what you expected at the start?
The last twelve months have actually been better than I had predicted. It is a privilege to be the Mayor in this town where there is so much going on, particularly after 2011, when 22 new oil discoveries were made nearby in the North Sea. What we thought was a declining industry is actually growing now and we hope to see another forty years of activity. It is an exciting time to be in Stavanger, and over the last forty years the city has really grown into an international oil and gas capital, with a population increase from 60,000 to 128,000 and 350-400,000 in the greater area.
In addition to the massive expansion you oversee, you are also in charge of the “unruly oil and gas community”. What have been some of the key lessons you have taken away from the past twelve months of dealing with oil and gas executives within the region?
Over the past ten months we have met with all the leading E&P companies and service providers along with everyone else in the chain of production. I think it is important that Stavanger and this region maintain very close relations with the industry and that we work together with them, and that as a city we offer what we can to help them. When a city grows as rapidly as Stavanger, there are issues arising regarding housing, traffic, and human resources. It is important that we are familiar with the industry and get to know the individuals involved.
The oil and gas community likes Norway because of its stability in governance. Would you say you are continuing with the same policies as last time?
Of course. My predecessor was very familiar with the industry, so it was important for me to familiarize myself with the industry when I took office. Governmental stability is very particular to this area of the world, in that we cooperate more between the public and private industry than in other places. The city itself keeps a close eye on the activities of the oil and gas community within its borders. Additionally we are constantly seeking new ways to attract more skilled labor to the area, as well as promoting engineering and petroleum studies as prosperous subjects for university students. Of course we also want to be a good host city to the business.
What does the oil and gas business contribute to the community of Stavanger in terms of job creation or revenue?
The energy industry is undoubtedly very important for Stavanger. More than 50,000 individuals in this region are oil and gas employees. As our importance to the industry grows, I think that Stavanger should take a position of leadership and share its knowledge and experience about the industry with other cities. In the coming years we will be working closely with cities in Northern Norway and on the west coast. Naturally these cities also want to gain as much for their own growth as well. This was a major topic of discussion amongst the various cities present at the ONS conference. We all are going to share this growth. I am also obligated to visit other cities and share the experiences of Stavanger with others for their benefit.
Stavanger is an historic city; in 1969 the industry boomed and the need for infrastructure skyrocketed. At the same time you have to preserve the historical nature of the city. How do you manage this balance?
Maintaining this balance is a challenge in that Stavanger does not have much room for new buildings; consequently we have to transform old industry areas into new buildings and apartments, which is a very slow and expensive process. One of the biggest challenges we face is providing housing for people moving here. Individuals working in the oil and gas industry have ample wages, but those working in non-oil and gas jobs often struggle to find affordable property. Furthermore, we are encouraging more young people to come to the area. This is one of my flagship projects, and I constantly work with the mayors of other neighboring cities, as well as private construction contractors to make this happen.
You might be considered the main connection between the society and industry. How difficult is it to meet the demands of both sides?
I do not believe that it is all that challenging. The oil and gas industry has been here for forty years, and it has managed quite well in terms of balancing its interests and development with the preservation of nature and the societal balance. I have never heard of local fishermen from this area complain about installations or platforms in the North Sea. If anything we need to increase the number of discoveries from last year. As technology continues to improve we will be able to obtain more oil from the more mature fields as well. We must investigate some areas for 10-20 years until you have exploration. In any case, the balance between energy and the rest has managed well the past forty years and should continue in this manner.
We have interviewed the various heads of other organizations. Aberdeen is just across the North Sea, they might have something to say about Stavanger calling itself the European energy capital as they have their own claim to R&D and other developments. How do you still attract international companies to Stavanger?
Stability in the industry is a key factor. Stavanger is inherently an international city, and it is not far from beaches and mountains. We have the energy industry here and that is why we are interesting. I do a lot to attract the industry by travelling to Houston, or sending letters of recommendation or invitation letters to companies looking to set up in the Stavanger area. We meet companies and tell them about our region and the opportunities here, living conditions, our school system, what we can offer. Stavanger is a very small city and you have to be very active to let companies know about our city. Stavanger is also part of the world energy city partnership, which is very important for us. 20% of our inhabitants are non-Norwegian, with 174 nationalities living in Stavanger. Consequently, we have British and French schools, as well as communities from many countries here. We offer special immersion courses for the spouses of foreign oil and gas individuals. We try to make people who come here feel welcome. Every year we have a big contact meeting with all the major oil companies in which we have a panel discussion for the current issues in Stavanger. We also do a similar meeting with small companies, and I think they really appreciate it since they do not necessarily get the opportunity to interact with each other.
When we interviewed your predecessor, it was just after Stavanger had become European Capital of Culture. How are you building upon this reputation of culture and what other cultural attractions do you have to offer?
Culture is very important to us; this was why we built a brand-new concert hall. It all started in 2008, and Stavanger uses more money than any other city on culture. I think it is important for Stavanger to be an energy city, but at the same time we need to define ourselves as a city of culture and as well as being an attractive living location. We have the theatre, the old and new concert halls, new cultural schools for children, the food and jazz festivals, so there is plenty to offer.
You took on this role twelve months ago; what would you like to achieve by the time you leave this office?
I think one of the most important things is to bring this region closer together, namely the four neighboring cities of Stavanger, Sola, Sandnes and Randaberg. I wish they were one city, but the others do not see this as beneficial. It is important that we cooperate in a way that we can manage to solve some of the main challenges, particularly on housing. We must have more people use public transportation in the coming years, and one of our goals is to build a light rail and also expand and sharpen our university programs. We only have 7-8,000 students in Stavanger and we need to take good care of them. The university plays a very important role in this area, and that is another main issue for me. Stavanger has more to offer than just being the energy capital of Norway, and I would like to welcome all individuals openly to my city.