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The Economist: Really Big Oil

Aug 10th 2006
From The Economist print edition

Sluggish behemoths control virtually all the world’s oil; they should be privatised

WHEN activists, journalists and others speak of “Big Oil”, you know exactly what they mean: companies such as Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP and Royal Dutch Shell.

These titans have been making lots of money for their shareholders; their bosses enjoy vast pay packets; and their actions affect us all. BP’s decision to shut down Prudhoe Bay, America’s biggest oilfield, to repair leaking pipes is a case in point, outraging many and pushing petrol prices even higher.

Yet Big Oil is pretty small next to the industry’s true giants: the national oil companies (NOCs) owned or controlled by the governments of oil-rich countries, which manage over 90% of the world’s oil, depending on how you count. Of the 20 biggest oil firms, in terms of reserves of oil and gas, 16 are NOCs. Saudi Aramco, the biggest, has more than ten times the reserves that Exxon does. Those with misgivings about oil—that its price is too high, that reserves are running out, that it damages the environment, that it is more a curse than an asset for countries that produce it—must look to NOCs for reassurance.

These companies are certainly sitting on a reassuring amount of oil. Saudi Aramco’s proved reserves alone could keep the world supplied for several decades. But it is only exploiting ten of its 80 or so fields, so will be able to pump at the present rate for about 70 years even if it never discovers another drop of oil. In fact, Aramco and other NOCs are likely to find plenty more if they look, since their territory has not been very thoroughly explored. Only 2,000 wildcat wells have ever been dug in the countries around the Gulf, according to Leonardo Maugeri, an Italian oilman, compared with more than 1m wells in the United States.

But if the amount of oil at state oil companies’ disposal is not much of a worry, the way they manage it certainly is. Few of the princes, politicians and strongmen who wield ultimate authority over these firms can resist the urge to meddle. At best, that leads to the sort of inefficiencies found at most state-owned firms: overstaffing, underinvestment and so on. At worst, the business of pumping and selling oil is entirely subsumed by politics, as in the case of Petróleos de Venezuela, one of the biggest NOCs (see article). In either case, NOCs produce less oil, more expensively, than they should.

The people’s oil, not the bureaucrats’

That is bad for consumers, of course, in so far as it pushes up the price of oil. But it is also bad for oil-producing countries, which could be squeezing more profit from each barrel if their NOCs were more efficient. Moreover, there are several NOCs not bound by OPEC quotas, such as Mexico’s Pemex and Russia’s Rosneft, which would love to boost production to take advantage of the current high price, but are struggling to do so.

The easiest way to improve state oil firms’ performance would be to privatise them. The authorities, no longer torn between nurturing their NOCs and milking them for all they are worth, could concentrate on maximising their oil revenue through taxes and royalties. Failing that, governments could instil a little market discipline by subjecting their NOCs to competition, either by encouraging them to expand abroad or by allowing foreign firms some access to their home territory. At least, they should grant NOCs operational autonomy, and allow them to retain and invest some portion of their earnings. The less bureaucrats interfere, after all, the more money their oil companies will generate for them to spend. and its sister non-profit websites,,,,,, and are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia feature.

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