KETR

How To Avoid The Oil Curse

Sep 6, 2011
Originally published on September 8, 2011 3:13 pm

One of the biggest problems any new government in Libya will face is something that doesn't seem like a problem: The massive amount of oil wealth the country possesses

Economists call it the natural-resource curse. Resource-rich countries often end up being ruled by dictators and autocrats. And the massive amount of money that floods into a country after oil discovery often has the perverse effect of putting existing industries out of business.

It's a curse that just a couple of countries have managed to avoid. The country that's managed it best, most people say, is Norway — a feat due in large part to the work of an Iraqi geologist named Farouk Al-Kasim.

In the 1960's Al-Kasim and his wife, who is Norwegian, decided to move to Norway. Their son had cerebral palsy and needed medical care.

Job-wise, Norway seemed like the worst place in the world for an oil guy.

"The National Geological Survey had already said that there is no hope in heaven of ever finding oil or gas," Al-Kasim says. He figured, worst case scenario, he'd drive a taxi.

But even though Norway's geologists had said there wasn't oil, companies were still looking for it. And so the Norwegian government hired Al-Kasim to review the reports the companies were sending in of their explorations.

What he saw was surprising.

"Remember, the country was saying there is no way there's oil out there," Al-Kasim recalls. "And here I am looking at data that says that they've already found it, four times over."

The finds still weren't big enough to justify a big commercial investment. But a year later, the Ekofisk oil field was discovered.

It was a massive find. Norway was officially rich with oil — and at risk of falling victim to the natural-resource curse.

Al-Kasim and a colleague wrote a series of proposals that found their way into a government plan that most people credit with saving Norway from the oil curse.

One radical solution aimed at preventing the oil money from destroying Norway's existing industries: Limit the amount of money the country made from oil in the short term. Don't drill everything at once.

"It was received with skepticism by the industry, who wanted Norway to go full-speed ahead," Al-Kasim said.

Despite the industry pushback, Norway handed out just a couple drilling permits a year.

In an even more stunning act of self-restraint, the Norwegians decided not to spend most of the oil money. Instead, they put it in an oil trust fund that's now worth hundreds of billions of dollars. The government only spends the interest that the fund generates.

Perhaps most shocking: Norwegian politicians have largely agreed to leave the principal untouched.

"The Norwegian miracle is that ... all the parties in parliament agreed on a policy, and they agreed among themselves that they will never use oil policy as a subject during elections," Al-Kasim says.

So, that's Norway's secret: At every step of the way, do the opposite of basic human nature.

Tell powerful oil companies, you can't get the oil right away. Tell taxpayers, you won't get the money from the oil right away. And tell campaigning politicians, you know that half a trillion dollars we have just sitting there in our oil fund? You're not allowed to talk about it.

Al-Kasim says he worries that Libya, like most countries, will find it difficult to emulate Norway's success. His main piece of advice for them: "For God's sake, don't go very quickly."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Today, Planet Money's Alex Blumberg brings us the story of the unlikely man at the center of Norway's strategy, and the lessons he has for Libya.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So first off, just how bad is it, having lots of oil?

MARTIN SANDBU: It's awful. Most countries would probably have been better off without oil than they are with oil.

BLUMBERG: So how did Norway avoid this fate? A lot of it was due to this guy.

FAROUK AL: My name is Farouk al-Kasim.

BLUMBERG: Kasim not a Norwegian name, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KASIM: No, it isn't.

BLUMBERG: Al-Kasim is Iraqi. And for over a decade, he worked in Iraq for an oil company. He was trained as a geologist. But in the 1960s, al-Kasim and his wife, who is Norwegian, decided to move to Norway. Their son had cerebral palsy and needed medical care. Job-wise Norway seemed, at the time, like the worst place in the world for an oil guy like al-Kasim.

KASIM: You see, the Norwegian Geological Survey had already said that there is no hope in heaven of ever finding oil or gas.

BLUMBERG: Al-Kasim figured, worst case scenario, he'd drive a taxi. But it turns out al-Kasim's skills were needed in Norway. Even though Norway's geologists had said there wasn't oil, companies were still out there looking for it. And so, the Norwegian government hired al-Kasim to review the reports these companies were sending in about their explorations. And what he saw in the data was surprising.

KASIM: Remember, the country was saying there is no way there's oil out there. And here I am looking at data that says, my God, they have already found it four times over. Admittedly, not yet commercial size.

BLUMBERG: Not yet anyway. But around a year later, the Ekofisk oil field was discovered, a massive find. Norway was officially rich. Now, how to keep the riches from destroying them. Al-Kasim and a colleague wrote a series of proposals that found their way into a government plan that most people credit with saving Norway from the oil curse.

SIEGEL: limit the amount of oil money there is. Don't drill everything at once. As you might imagine, this plan didn't go over so well with everyone.

KASIM: It was received with skepticism by the industry, who wanted Norway to go full-speed ahead.

BLUMBERG: Again, journalist Martin Sandbu, who himself is Norwegian.

SANDBU: It's been saved in an oil fund, a savings fund, and the government only gets the interest on the financial wealth that's in that fund. The trust fund is, I haven't checked the latest numbers, but it's on the order of $500 billion now, which amounts to $100,000 dollars per Norwegian citizen.

BLUMBERG: Does anybody in Norway say - you know what, I just want that money now? Can you just give me $100,000?

SANDBU: Surprisingly few.

KASIM: Well, that's what I call the Norwegian Miracle.

BLUMBERG: Again, Farouk al Kasim.

KASIM: The Norwegian Miracle is that all the parties in parliament agreed on a policy. And they agreed among themselves that they will never use oil policy as a subject during elections.

BLUMBERG: For NPR news, I'm Alex Blumberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.