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Norway's North Sea Divers Lost Their Minds over Oil

The country's wealth was built on a series of health and safety violations that took a toll on the divers' mental health.

Still from Pioneer

Norway used to be a country of fishermen, lumberjacks, and guys who were really good at skiing across barren fields for days on end. The rest of Scandinavia looked down their noses at their simple, whale-eating cousins. Half the Swedish joke book is made up of stories and one-liners that boil down to “Norwegians are dumb. LOL.” In the land of black metal, it was said, everyone drank moonshine and fought in the street just to stave off the boredom. The Swedes are still making jokes about those hick Norwegians, and my friend Tom, who is from somewhere near the Arctic circle, says the whole "fights-and-moonshine" thing is still how they entertain themselves there, but these days the Swedish jokes are full of envy and the moonshine drinking is just for kicks.


That’s because Norway, once one of Europe’s poorest countries, was changed beyond recognition by the arrival of that most precious and deadly of modern commodities: oil. From 1969 onward, huge oil and gas deposits were discovered in the North Sea. The great ocean depths along the Norwegian coast kept the oil from being piped ashore. To lay a pipeline this far down, the Norwegian authorities financed a series of test dives, with the American diving industry helping develop safe methods to allow divers to work up to 1,300 feet beneath the waves. Vast sums of money lay in wait for anyone who could exploit these resources. Here, in the north, was a new Wild West.

At first, foreign companies dominated exploration of the Norwegian continental shelf. These companies were responsible for developing the country's first oil and gas fields, but in 1972 the Norwegian government created Statoil, and the principle of 50 percent state participation in each production license was established. On June 10, 1981, the Norwegian parliament approved development plans for a pipeline that would take oil and gas from the cold North Sea to the mainland. The construction was in the hands of the state. Choosing to pipe the petroleum resources to the mainland made Norway one of the world’s wealthiest countries.

Members of the Statpipe team. Photo courtesy of Angus Kleppe

Like many stories of great wealth, though, this too has a dark side—one that is explored in Erik Skjoldbjærg’s new film, Pioneer, a tense thriller that has already been picked up by George Clooney, who intends to remake it in God’s own language, American English. Skjoldbjærg already has some experience in Hollywood—his debut film, Insomnia,was remade by Christopher Nolan and starred Al Pacino and Robin Williams.


“I consider myself lucky Nolan did it,” Skjoldbjærg tells me. Pioneer, which has an original soundtrack by Air, is about the North Sea divers, also known as the “pioneer divers.” These were the men who went down to new depths as part of the oil-exploration process. An overwhelming majority of these divers were physically and psychologically damaged as a result of operating so far down. Today, it is deemed unsafe to dive below 590 feet, but in the 1970s the pioneer divers were working on pipelines up to 1,600 feet below the surface.

One of these men was Angus Kleppe, who tells me he has “neurological injuries” in his “central nervous system” as a result of the diving he did for Seaway Diving, a company that worked with oil companies and the Norwegian state. Kleppe and his team would be flown out to a ship and then sent far down into the sea in a diving bell, breathing specially developed gas to allow them to work at such pressures. Down on the ocean bed, the only light they had came from a vehicle that was sent with them.

The Statpipe pipeline, 350 meters below the surface of the North Sea. Photo courtesy of Angus Kleppe

At these depths, Kleppe never saw another living creature—save for once encountering an American diving team after the same oil. “I waved at them. When you are working in such dangerous conditions, you’re not going to swim over and start trying to pull their equipment off them. You may be rivals, but you’re divers and you respect each other.”


That respect was still present onshore in the bars, where divers from different countries tried to outdo each other with stories of their heroism. “It’s like soldiers from different regiments when they get together to have a drink—you’re all trying to tell the best story,” Kleppe says.

The enormous mental and physical strain placed on these men took its toil, though. Saturation divers need to spend weeks in decompression chambers, but with so much at stake, the divers were being used as guinea pigs for any new gas or medical advancements that might give their company an edge. “Everyone was experimenting, but the most likely consequences of this were not communicated to the divers," says Skjoldbjærg, who sees his film as marking a key moment in Norway’s history.

Some of the original pioneer divers. Photo courtesy of Angus Kleppe

"When I was growing up, it always felt like Norway was the little brother of Scandinavia. Finding oil changed everything. In 20 or 30 years the country has become a different place. It changed our mentality, and it changed who we are," he says. "Becoming rich has many sides. Wealth is a positive thing, but when I was growing up there was a strong communal sense in Norway. You depended on each other. I think that might have been lost."

The North Sea divers, working-class men from rural areas or Norway’s port towns, are symbolic of this. "The divers gained confidence from how well they dived,” Skjoldbjærg tells me, “but they quickly found that serious physical and mental health problems were the price they had to paid for it." Oil brought unimaginable wealth to Norway, but it also brought friction to a society that had once been close-knit.


This is something Kleppe echoes when he talks about the professional pride he took in his bravery and the bravery of those around him. “The Norwegians had the record—we’d gotten down to 500 meters [1,600 feet]—and there was an enormous amount of professional pride that came from that. We wanted to be able to keep it up,” he says.

A diver works on the Statpipe pipeline. Photo courtesy of Angus Kleppe

This pride kept him going, but it didn’t obscure the anger he ended up feeling toward his government and the oil companies that profited richly from the dangerous and damaging work he did. “Governments are all the same. They want their money. I’m not unhappy with my diving company, but I am annoyed with the governments and oil companies involved,” he says.

In recent years, the Norwegian government has seen a number of cases brought against it by the North Sea divers. In March 2004, about 200 divers were offered sums up to $458,000 in compensation. Now, there is another case in the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg. In 2012, Henning Haug, of the divers’ organization Offshore Dykker Unionen, said that Norway “must see it as very embarrassing that its wealth is based on human rights violations of such a serious character that they will now be highlighted in an international court.”

When oil made the country rich, "Norway learned how to gain control over an industry much bigger than itself," says Skjoldbjærg, but what they did to get there crystallized some of the more worrying elements of capitalism. The IMF currently ranks Norway as the fourth-richest country in the world judging by GDP per capita, something that would have been unimaginable to anyone growing up before the North Sea revealed its riches. That wealth was secured at the expense of ordinary working Norwegians. Some of these people are still fighting for compensation for what they were put through. Pioneer takes us back to the beginning of an ongoing story, when everything was still up for grabs and the resources-rich waters of the North Sea played a very similar role to that played by the oil-filled deserts of Iraq a couple of decades later.

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