IF anyone still believes that the days of petroleum-related instability are behind us -- following the political shocks of the 1970s when supply disruptions led to turmoil in Western nations -- they need only look northward, to Norway. Norway, the second largest exporter of oil in Europe, next to Britain, is now struggling to reconcile the realities of slumping world oil prices and an economy that is heavily dependent on petroleum-based export earnings. How the new Labor Party government of Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland resolves that dilemma will provide vital lessons to other oil-producing nations. Moreover, the way Norway deals with oil -- especially if it decides to strike some type of accord with OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) -- could help determine whether world oil prices stabilize, or even shoot back upward.
Norway, which produces some 900,000 barrels of oil a day, has, along with Britain, stoutly held out against joining OPEC in cutting back production to help bolster prices. The Labor Party government, which recently replaced the ruling Conservative government, has now sent out signals that it would consider working with OPEC to stabilize world oil prices at a ``reasonable level.''
Certainly, price stability is to be welcomed.
Limiting production, however, would present enormous difficulties. The nation's oil and gas revenues are expected to plummet 71 percent this year because of the slump in prices. Indeed, the Conservative government collapsed in late April because it was unable to push an austerity measure through parliament.
Labor is now pushing ahead with such a program. The crown, Norway's monetary unit, has been devalued by 12 percent, to help boost exports and end currency speculation. Taxes on the wealthy are expected to go up. And austerity steps are under way.
Ironically, the impact on Oslo of the overall downward spiral in global oil prices (although they are now rising somewhat on world markets) could have even more far-reaching implications for American foreign policy.
Labor governments have dominated Norway since the end of World War II, except for two brief periods in the 1960s and 1970s, and then the longer stretch under the Conservatives in the 1980s. But today's Labor Party is more leftist than in the past, as older party loyalists have been replaced by younger persons more inclined to maintain Norway's independence from East-West rivalries. Under the Conservatives and, indeed, Labor in the past, Norway's 4 million-plus citizens have been firm supporters of NATO and the US role in Europe. Norway's underlying friendship with the US is not expected to change. But could Oslo's support for the United States role in Europe now moderate, under demands from younger leftists? That has already taken place in at least two other European nations, Denmark and Greece. Indeed, Mrs. Brundtland says that she will work for a zone free of nuclear weapons in northern Europe, although, she says, her government will not alter the basic foreign policy of Norway.
The new Labor government is a minority government. So the extent to which it is able to steer a middle course for a nation now hit hard by the fall in oil prices could well have import far beyond the issue of ``black gold.''