The Limits of Institutional Design in Oil Sector Governance: Exporting the Norwegian Model

Norway has made a point of administering its petroleum resources using three distinct government bodies: a national oil company (NOC) engaged in commercial hydrocarbon operations; a government ministry to help set policy; and a regulatory body to provide oversight and technical expertise.  In Norway's case, this institutional design has provided useful checks and balances, helped minimize conflicts of interest, and allowed the NOC, Statoil, to focus on commercial activities while other government agencies regulate oil operators including Statoil itself.  Norway's relative success in managing its hydrocarbon resources has prompted development institutions to consider whether this "Norwegian Model" of separated government functions should be recommended to other oil-producing countries, particularly those whose oil sectors have underperformed. 

Seeking insight into this question, we study eight countries with different political and institutional characteristics, some of which have attempted to separate functions in oil in the manner of Norway and some of which have not.  We conclude that while the Norwegian Model may be a "best practice" of sorts, it is not the best prescription for every ailing oil sector.  The separation of functions approach is most useful and feasible in cases where political competition exists and institutional capacity is relatively strong.  Unchallenged leaders, on the other hand, are often able to adequately discharge commercial and policy/regulatory functions in the oil sector using the same entity, although this approach may not be robust against political changes (nor do we address in this paper any possible development or human welfare implications of this arrangement). 

When technical and regulatory talent is particularly lacking in a country, better outcomes may result from consolidating commercial, policy, and regulatory functions in a single body until institutional capacity has further developed.  Countries like Nigeria with vibrant political competition but limited institutional capacity pose the most significant challenge for oil sector reform: unitary control over the sector is impossible but separation of functions is often impossible to implement.  In such cases reformers are wise to focus on incremental but sustainable improvements in technical and institutional capacity.