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A Comparative History of National Oil Companies

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Alain Beltran

Oil is undoubtedly rather more than a mere hydrocarbon. It is a development factor, an essential element in energy balances, a strategic weapon, a resource characterized by unequal distribution, and also by unequal consumption. For more than a century now, it has showed its importance, whether during periods of crisis, or at times of strong growth.
Under such circumstances, few countries have allowed mere market laws to operate freely. Whether visible or discreet, the hand of the State has been present in many cases, depending on different purposes and taking various forms. Hence national companies developed, if only in order to deal with the Majors and their greatly feared power. One finds examples of national companies both in Western Europe and in certain developing countries that have substantial resources on their soil. Those companies did not all experience the same destiny, but they have sometimes influenced the rules of the oil game.
The colloquium held in Paris in 2003 («National oil companies: history, characteristics, comparisons from the inter-war period to the end of the 20 th century») provided some new facts and viewpoints in connection with this history, still relatively unknown.
You will read contributions here from various horizons making it possible to illuminate the present and the near future, since oil industry issues continue to challenge the world.

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A Comparative History of National Oil Companies.Introduction 9

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9 A Comparative History of National Oil Companies Introduction Alain BELTRAN Research Director at the CNRS The history of hydrocarbons does not relate only to economic ques- tions or to the technical domain. It is largely a political matter, or to be more exact a geopolitical matter, insofar as no other energy or raw material raises – to that extent – strategic questions concerning commer- cial relationships, economic independence and the volume of financial flows. Rather than giving a free hand to the market alone, or to the international companies (the Majors, stigmatized as the “Seven Sis- ters”), a certain number of countries preferred to obtain control, to a variable extent, of the oil market by setting up national (or nationalized) companies, with a major role going to the State by definition. This desire for self-assertion and to avoid experiencing an outside influence has taken numerous forms, ranging from powerful monopolies – some- times considered as “a State within the State” – to companies that, on the contrary, are obediently integrated into the mechanisms of the oil economy. Wars, oil shocks and geopolitical ups and downs have gener- ally given rise to such interventions by the “visible” hand. On the other hand, the last years of the 20th century, marked by strong mistrust of State power, brought some wide-ranging denationalizations. But that does not mean that States abandon public policy, but rather that they think that it can be exercised in ways other than through a national company. To the same extent as results...

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