Philosopher Guides Norway's Oil Rich Spending Habits

ByJim Sciutto

OSLO, NORWAY, May 26, 2006 — -- Norway claims one of the highest incomes in the world, yet the country maintains a rather frugal spending habit.

A country the size of New Mexico, Norway has become the world's third-largest oil exporter, thanks to its North Sea wells. One of its most productive offshore oil rigs contains a single platform that is making a half a billion dollars a month in pure profit.

But while the region is awash in oil money, Norway has made the sometimes politically unpopular decision to save most of it. Since 1997, three-quarters of its oil profits have gone straight into a national savings account, which today totals $250 billion.

"This is revenue from a natural resource and we are not allowed to spend this in a generation or two," finance minister Kristin Halvorsen said.

With an aging population, Norwegians save for the time when today's children retire. But with so much oil income, there is still enough money to pay for generous public services today.

The public schools are so good, few pay for private education. And there is free, high-quality national health care.

The government has even appointed a philosopher to help decide how to spend the rest of the money.

"Anyone who has that kind of imprint in the world because of the size of the fund has a responsibility," said Henrik Syse, philosopher with the Norwegian Petroleum Fund.

One of those responsibilities is the environment.

To encourage conservation, Norway taxes cars and gasoline heavily. Despite their country's access to oil, Norwegians own the fewest number of cars in Europe per capita, and, at $7.30 per gallon, pay the most in the world for gas. That's roughly $130 to fill the tank of a midsize car.

The political opposition leader, Siv Jensen, calls this a "greedy" state.

"The state makes a lot of money just by the fact that oil prices are so high," Jensen said.

Norway's current leaders counter that statement, and claim they are frugal.

And with its oil reserves expected to run out in a decade or two, Norway is already weaning itself off oil, relying more on renewable energy, windmills and hydropower.

For Norway, an oil fortune is unquestionably good, while it lasts.

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