On the State's Choice of Oil Company: Risk Management and the Frontier of the Petroleum Industry

Conventional wisdom holds that oil sector nationalizations are rooted in political motives of the petroleum states, which perceive value in the direct control of resource development though a state enterprise.  State motives are inarguably important.  At the same time, we argue in this paper that constraints of risk significantly affect a state's choice of which agent to employ to extract its hydrocarbons.  Implicit in much current debate is the idea that private, international oil companies (IOCs) and the state-controlled, national oil companies (NOCs) are direct competitors, and that the former may face threats to their very existence in an era of increased state control. 

In fact, IOCs and NOCs characteristically supply very different functions to governments when it comes to managing risk.  For reasons we discuss, IOCs excel at managing risk while NOCs typically do not.  IOCs, NOCs, and a third type of player, the oil service company, will all continue to exist because their distinct talents are needed by states seeking to realize the value of their petroleum resources.  However, the relative positions of these different players have changed substantially over time, and will continue to do so, in response to the shifting needs of oil-rich states.

In the first part of this paper, we explore the nature and sources of risk in the petroleum industry, how these risks change over time, the task of managing petroleum risks, and the variable capacity of state and private companies to manage them.  In the second part, we apply qualitative and quantitative approaches to test the idea that risk significantly affects the state's choice of which agent to use for petroleum extraction.  First, we review the events leading to the cluster of nationalizations that occurred in the early 1970s and assess whether they were significantly affected by considerations of risk.  Second, we explore how well variation in risk and state capacity for risk can explain changing ownership over time within a particular oil province - the UK and Norwegian zones of the North Sea.  Third, we use data from energy research and consulting firm Wood Mackenzie to quantitatively test our hypothesis about the key role of risk, looking in particular at the case of oil and gas company exploration behavior.  

In all three cases, our observations are broadly consistent with the hypothesis that risk significantly affects the state's choice of hydrocarbon agent, although, as expected, other factors emerge as important drivers of outcomes as well.