A brief comment on petro-states

I read this Op-Ed piece at Al-Jazeera the other day, entitled ‘The perils of petro-states: The case of Alberta’ (link: http://aje.me/1fjPONb). It goes on to compare the Canadian province of Alberta with Norway, contrasting the former’s success in managing its oil wealth with the failed promises of economic salvation in the latter.

This topic appeals to me for a number of reasons. I grew up in Norway and my father worked for an oil major my whole life, so arguments about Norway’s success have been quite personal for me, as I consider myself a fortunate beneficiary of it. Similarly, a number of my colleagues at graduate school were specialists in sovereign wealth funds and natural resources generally; one of my dissertation examiners, in fact, wrote a book on such funds. These conversations have been floating around my head for the last few years, and they are rather interesting.

I think the author makes a couple important points in the piece, and I would like to take it up in a little more depth. Suffice to say in the meantime I do not think the comparison between Alberta and Norway is at all justified. Norway is a sovereign nation (it isn’t even a part of the European Union), it controls its currency, and the geography is completely different (its oil reserves are in the North Sea). A more apt comparison would be between Alberta and Texas. Both are provinces, subject to a national currency, much of their oil wealth is pulled out of the ground. Both the US and Canada are members of NAFTA, so when the author of this piece tries to relate the losses in manufacturing jobs starting in the 1990s to the mismanagement of oil wealth, it doesn’t quite make sense. There needs to be a sharper attention to geography and economic history here.

In a future post, I’m going to riff on “petro-state” and try to formulate a regional alternative to it. I think, as a start, the definition of petro-state (“dependent on petroleum for 50 percent or more of export revenues, 25 percent or more of GDP, and 25 percent or more of government revenues”) is a little too dry. There is, as noted above, the scale issue: does this apply only to countries, or at sub-national scales? What sort of petroleum products are included in this, for instance (raw material exports or refined products)? Using employment, output, and tax revenue data (assuming I can locate it), I’m going to try to work backwards and see what kind of alternative definitions can emerge that take geography more seriously.

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