National oil companies, with US$3.1trn in assets dangerously underscrutinised

He is the Communications Director, Natural Resource Governance Institute

“New open database and resulting analysis point to need for enhanced transparency and oversight”

State-owned oil companies and their impacts on economies are misunderstood and merit greater scrutiny, a new report indicates.

Using the Natural Resource Governance Institute’s (NRGI) new open National Oil Company Database, researchers have shown that many state enterprises fail to disclose information critical to the oversight of public revenues.

National oil companies (NOCs) produce the majority of the world’s oil and gas. Companies in the database hold combined assets of more than US$3.1trillion. The ten largest, including Saudi Aramco and Mexico’s Pemex, together have more assets than the ten biggest international oil companies, including ExxonMobil and BP.

“The sheer amount of national wealth concentrated in these companies can contribute to a sense that they are ‘too big to fail’, ” NRGI advisor Patrick Heller says. “The combination of massive economic influence and weak oversight can pose huge economic risks in many countries.”

Beyond the transparency problem, some national oil companies carry huge debts that burden their national economies. Some have debts in amounts higher than 10 percent of their countries’ GDP. Venezuela’s troubled state oil company PDVSA has debt exceeding 20 percent of GDP. Many NOCs have required multibillion-dollar government bailouts in recent years, becoming a costly drain on public finances.

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The NRGI report finds that at least 25 countries are “national oil company dependent”, meaning that the NOC on its own collects revenues equivalent to more than 20 percent of the total revenue of their government. The fiscal health of many countries and their governments’ ability to use oil revenues for development depend heavily on how well the NOC is run, how much revenue it transfers to the state, and the quality of its spending.

“In dozens of resource-rich countries, national oil companies are at the centre of determining the quality of governance for their macroeconomy and for their natural resources, which belong to the people,” says NRGI president and CEO Daniel Kaufmann. “In these countries, improving governance is the development challenge of a generation, as sub-par governance of their national resources perpetuates poverty and inequality.

“State-owned enterprises can weigh a country down or help propel development. Getting their governance right is crucial,” Kaufmann says.

In many countries, NOCs are not held sufficiently accountable – either because they don’t disclose enough information, or because formal oversight by government or informal oversight by civil society and the media is inconsistent. Underscrutinised companies might perform poorly or become vessels for corruption. Increased transparency is a critical lever for holding company leadership accountable and encouraging strong returns on public investment.

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“This new database should help demonstrate the power of information about national oil companies,” Heller says. “It can be a valuable tool for NOCs, governments and their citizens to understand how these companies manage public assets and liabilities, and to insist that they perform.”

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