Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Oil investors spurn Mexico and Latin America

(This blog originally appeared on   
     Everyone knows there is a lot of oil in Mexico. Venezuela has its fair share, as do Brazil and Argentina. There’s even more oil to be found in Ecuador, and the Falklands is having its day in the sun. But the news about oil exploration and production investment today is predominately focused on the US and Canada. Why is that?
      Decades of nationalistic sentiment have created a no-go area in Mexico and Latin America, with foreign nationals and major oil companies mostly conspicuous by their absence.
      When Enrique Pena Nieto was elected last year as Mexico’s new president, he pledged to reform the oil industry. Last month, he proposed that Pemex, the state oil and natural gas monopoly, would be able to launch contracts on the basis of profit-sharing rather than production-sharing.  But then the analysis started coming down, and it wasn’t good.

      In Platts reporting by correspondent Ron Buchanan, an analyst was dismissive of Pena Nieto’s reforms. “What Churchill once said about Russia–’a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’–is an apt description of the energy reform,” said independent Mexico City-based analyst David Shields.   
      Buchanan says Mexico has had trouble attracting foreign investment for its oil industry since the 1938 nationalization. By law, all hydrocarbons found in Mexico belong to the state. That means that concessions and production-sharing contracts are banned.
      “The Pena Nieto proposal was meant to have opened Mexico’s oil to private enterprise. But so far the proposal is very unclear. It talks about ‘profit-sharing’ rather than production-sharing. That could sound like more incentives for service contracts but no real share of oil for operators,” he adds.
      This will need to be resolved by upcoming Congressional debates, almost certainly amid very large street protests by defenders of the state monopoly. The protesters have already achieved a significant victory. There will be no “Big Bang” IPO for state monopoly Pemex because that would mean privatization, says Buchanan.
      Argentina is also too unpredictable, say industry insiders, after having famously wrenched Repsol’s 51% stake in domestic oil company YPF away from the Spanish company in April 2012. Platts correspondent Charles Newbery says: “There is no certainty that an investment will pan out as planned.”
      Nor is there rule of law, stability or sanctity of contracts, all of which are important for investors. “If you compare the investment climate in other shale-rich countries like Australia, Poland and South Africa, it is a lot more secure to do business in those,” says Newbery.
      Argentina has taken a few steps to repair this bad rap by increasing the wellhead price of gas to $7.50/MMBtu from $2.30/MMBtu from new developments, and by allowing oil companies that invest more than $1 billion over five years in a production project to export 20% of the output tax free and keep the foreign earnings outside of the country, Newbery said.
      Some majors are willing to try. Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell are about to start drilling for shale resources in Argentina’s Vaca Muerta, one of the world’s most promising plays for unconventional oil and gas production.
      And the Falklands? Just try poking a hole in the earth’s crust offshore and see how long it takes for Argentinian lawyers to turn up.
      Ecuador has just made the controversial decision not to preserve a huge swathe of rainforest where the major Ishpingo-Tiputini-Tambococha oil field lies, underneath the Yasuni National Park, in favor of drilling for oil.
      But Platts’ correspondent Stephan Kueffner says that foreign companies believe there isn’t enough potential upside to compensate for the amount of risk they face, which ranges from volatile taxes to protests and lawsuits from indigenous communities.
      Brazil has a number of problems with getting foreigners to invest, says Platts correspondent Dom Phillips: “The issues often get summed up as the ‘Brazilian cost’: high wages, difficult and cumbersome bureaucracy, crumbling infrastructure, high taxes, low competition. It is expensive to do business here and it can be hard to make money.”
      Also, rules requiring local content minimums stump outsiders, says correspondent Lucy Jordan. Oil companies in the exploration phase are required to use between 37% and 85% local goods and services, and sometimes the quality offered by Brazilian suppliers simply isn’t up to standard. “There is also little English spoken,” says Jordan, “And nearly a third of Brazil’s foreign direct investment comes from English-speaking countries.”
      In Colombia, where production passed the 1 million b/d mark this year, uncertainty is also the issue. Platts writer Chris Kraul says it has to do with a resurgence of guerrilla attacks on pipelines, and the current limbo of the peace talks underway. Also, the government’s intention to sell part of its 88.5% stake in Ecopetrol, which produces two-thirds of the country’s oil, creates another unknown factor.
      “Another factor is the failure of explorers to find any big new reserves in Colombia over the last decade, despite the big increase in exploration,” says Kraul. “The big jump in Colombian production is mainly attributable to companies getting better at pumping heavy crudes in the eastern Llanos that were known to be there.”
      Trust is again the problem in Venezuela, and the death of President Hugo Chavez is unlikely to change that. In March this yea,r Venezuela’s oil minister and president of PDVSA Rafael Ramirez said he would continue to follow the oil policy of the deceased President “always,” a source told Platts.
      Venezuela has had its ups and downs with foreign investment, but lately the downs are winning. In the mid 1990s, Venezuela created a new fiscal framework to induce foreign investments in its heavy oil projects in the Orinoco Belt. In 2007, it turned around and expropriated ConocoPhillips’ not insubstantial investments in their entirety without fair compensation and forced “haircuts” in the ownership stake held by other companies in various projects that were made possible only by that 90′s reform.
      Platts stringer Mery Mogollon says that “legal insecurity” is the main obstacle, along with PDVSA’s debt issues with suppliers of services and equipment. “These companies cannot continue working if PDVSA does not pay.  And there is great doubt that PDVSA will pay in the future,” says Mogollon.
      Also, the deterioration of oil facilities and infrastructure in the country is causing a high rate of accidents and losses, she adds.
      Even oil protestors are not safe. Environmentalists are more likely to be killed in Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico and Peru than anywhere else, according to the UN.
      In contrast, in Canada, a combination of easy upstream access, repatriation of profits and a willingness among Canadian producers to welcome foreign capital helps to attract investors, notes Platts writer Ashok Dutta.
      In the past year we have seen China’s CNOOC pay more than $15 billion to take over of Nexen Inc., the largest-ever foreign acquisition by a Chinese company, and Malaysia’s Petronas pay more than $5 billion for Progress Energy Resources Corp. (although the Canadian government has drawn a line in the sand over further foreign takeovers).
      In the US, Bakken and Eagle Ford and Marcellus continue to lure new foreign investment, and CNOOC’s Nexen deal gave it a chunk of US Gulf Coast offshore leases.
      There are new pipeline routes springing up seemingly weekly and crude by rail is growing exponentially. Jones Act barges and tankers are overbooked. The only fly in the ointment is that exports–apart  to Canada–are still banned.
      In essence, the North American countries are all about making it work for investors, while making them money.
      But, Latin America and Mexico? Not so much. They are seen as takers, not givers. Fields have been repatriated, NOCs have kicked out foreign partners, royalties reneged upon, and minor spills treated like BP Macondo. Clearly there is a lot of work yet to be done in these countries to attract serious investors.

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