Arve Johnsen in memoriam
Obituary by Bjørn Vidar Lerøen
December 2023: Many years ago, Arve Johnsen told me that he had plans for his working life until he turned 90. And whatever came after that, he would take as time off and a bonus. He was a mere two months away from reaching that 90-year mark, when, on 6 December 2023, his exceptionally rich life came to an end. Arve Johnsen passed away peacefully with his loved ones around him.
Throughout his long life as a high-profile public figure, he was concerned that his family life should be kept out of the media. Nevertheless, many people enjoyed getting to know him and becoming friends with the man who was one of the greatest nation builders of the last century.
Arve Johnsen was born in Vestfold, Norway in February 1934. The family later moved to Hedmark, where his father became a station master at Stange station. He sought education broadly and ambitiously, studying economics at the Norwegian School of Economics in Bergen and obtaining a law degree from the University of Oslo.
No single person has had a stronger impact on the development of Norway as an oil and gas nation than Arve Johnsen. His life’s work was the establishment of Statoil, now Equinor. He was the right man at the right time. When Norway made its first commercial oil discovery at Ekofisk, just before Christmas in 1969, Arve Johnsen was chairman of the Labour Party’s industrial policy committee. In that capacity, he delivered a report in the summer of 1970 describing what he and the committee believed should be the outline of a Norwegian oil policy. Two years later, the establishment of the Norwegian state oil company — Statoil — became a reality. But in that intervening period, there was great political drama.
The government under Prime Minister Borten believed that state participation in the new industrial activity emerging on the continental shelf ought to take place through a state holding company.
In the spring of 1971, the incumbent conservative coalition government dissolved, and the Labour Party formed a minority government with Trygve Bratteli as prime minister, and Finn Lied as Minister of Industry. Lied appointed a young sales manager from Norsk Hydro as state secretary, Arve Johnsen, which was a decisive move for the way forward, since the state was to have an active role. This resulted in the proposal to establish a state-operated oil company, which was approved unanimously the Storting in June 1972.
That autumn, the Norwegian people rejected a proposal to seek membership of the European Union in the first referendum on the issue, forcing the government to resign, and leaving the young state secretary in the Ministry of Industry unemployed. He could have returned to his job at Norsk Hydro, but Statoil’s chairman, Jens Chr. Hauge, wanted it otherwise, and recruited Johnsen to the position of CEO of the new state oil company with the following words: “This will be your life’s work.”
A rare combination of vision and action
Johnsen set about his life’s work with strength, knowledge, and passion, declaring that in his family, “I have four children, three daughters with Tove and then Statoil.”
When Arve Johnsen was forced to step down as CEO of Statoil in 1988, as a result of billion-dollar cost overruns in the expansion of the refinery at Mongstad, he had ensured that his fourth child had been given an upbringing that made it viable and robust. The foundations were in place. The operatorships of the Statfjord and Gullfaks fields were secured, a pipeline had been constructed, and large amounts of gas were sold, primarily from Troll.
Arve Johnsen possessed a rare combination of vision and action. This made him respected and loved by a young generation filling the positions in the rapidly expanding state oil company, but also made him controversial, with Statoil increasingly becoming the subject of conflict. Criticism was directed at the company’s privileges, rapid growth, dominant role, and power. The great political confrontation and revision came with the Willoch government in 1981, which led to the state oil company having its wings clipped. The company fought fiercely against the reform but had to admit defeat.
Then came Mongstad and Johnsen’s downfall, and at the age of 54, Arve Johnsen retired. He sought refuge in Oslo, with the Norwegian Academy of Science and the Russian embassy as neighbours, and he maintained an office there ever since. A couple of months ago, he called me and said that he was closing down his office, since age was taking its toll, and his health was failing – despite his thoughts and ability to articulate them remaining clear.
From his office in Oslo, he continued his work as a lawyer, advisor, board member, public figure, and author. He wrote three books describing his work in the oil company with strong views on his own tenure and the future of the company, and voiced criticism of the company’s public listing, and barred the way for the first attempt at a merger between Statoil and Hydro. He opposed the sale of filling stations because he believed in the idea of the integrated oil company, and also opposed the name change from Statoil to Equinor. But he also adapted to change, and he never stopped being proud of his fourth child.
Arve Johnsen never wasted time and money on what he thought was unnecessary, and applied moderation to every aspect of his life. He convincingly combined the will to fight for what he believed in and showing kindness and consideration for those he met along the way.
Arve Johnsen looms large in the society that has sprung from the rich energy resources under the seabed of Norway’s long coast. We faced challenges and solved problems at the outer limits of technology. Arve often said that the difference between the possible and the impossible was a merely a matter of time. He himself became an example of a person who used his time on earth exceptionally well. And in light of his own saying ‘judge us by what we do and not by what we say,’ we must say that the results Arve Johnsen created endure well, for himself and for society.
Bjørn Vidar Lerøen