Norway's Iraqi ace-in-the-oil-well

If not for a case of cerebral palsy, would the course of North Sea oil development be radically different?

Published August 31, 2009 11:03PM (EDT)

Time's Justin Fox reads what he accurately calls "the amazing tale of Farouk al-Kasim" in Saturday's Financial Times, and titles his own blog post "How socialized health care made Norway an oil power." Kasim, an Iraqi petroleum geologist, emigrated from his native land seeking health care for his youngest child, who suffered from cerebral palsy.

But that's just one part of Martin Sandbu's fantastic feature. There's also the section that has state industrial regulation working for the benefit of all.

Most of the oil found in the world is never recovered: the average extraction rate worldwide is around 25 per cent. Norway averages 45 per cent, and for that, Olsen gives al-Kasim much of the credit: he pushed the government to increase extraction rates; insisted that companies try new technologies, such as water injection in chalk reservoirs or horizontal drilling; and threatened to withdraw operating licenses from companies that balked. "It is this culture, a culture of 'squeezing the last drop out,' which he cultivated," says Olsen.

...[T]he culture of pursuing the "last drop" brought greater benefits than just money pouring in. It spurred the development of technological expertise that has enabled Norwegian companies to compete with the best in the world. This, then, is a striking case of strong state regulation ultimately benefiting the private sector. "Norway is the only country in the world where the state and the capitalistic entities work together as partners, and the co-operation works, really works," says al-Kasim.

The Scandinavian welfare state is often explained away as an oddity of culturally homogeneous northern European nations. How much odder is it to learn that an Iraqi petroleum geologist played a critical role in ensuring that Norway has managed its oil resources better than any other country on the planet?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Energy How The World Works Iraq Middle East