Petrobras’s new oil wealth is worth little stuck underground. Five years after an 8.3-billion barrel discovery vaulted Brazil into the big leagues, a Petrobras partner has talked of another huge subsea find.
But government meddling has prevented the state oil giant or its rivals from fully exploiting offshore reserves.
Unless that changes, the bonanza won’t yield riches.
With 15 billion barrels in proven reserves, Brazil is already flush with oil. But the country’s output grew a mere 2.6 per cent to 2.2 million barrels a day last year.
Rather than accelerating following new discoveries, that was the slowest rate of growth in four years.
It is telling that news of the latest potential addition to its stock of oil failed to give Petrobras shares listed in New York any boost at all. In fact they slipped slightly.
The Brazilian government is also postponing this year’s oil rights licensing round. The state suspended such bids five years ago, following the big offshore discoveries.
When it happens, the process opens the door for foreign and other domestic oil firms. Without it, there’s less competition or urgency to tap Brazil’s potential.
Consider Venezuela. It spent years establishing its 297 billion barrels in heavy oil reserves, now the world’s largest store. Yet output has dropped 13 per cent in the past decade.
Brazil’s offshore crude is more costly and challenging to exploit, but Petrobras is experienced.
A bigger problem than the technical challenge is Brasilia’s insistence on using the oil giant as a tool for implementing development and social policies.
The danger is that the realization of Brazil’s oil wealth is deferred too long.
Global crude appetite is strong now, but may not always remain so. Research firm IDTechEx reckons, for instance, that around a third of cars sold globally are likely to be electric or hybrid vehicles by 2025.
Pricey oil also makes substitute fuels attractive.
If President Dilma Rousseff is keen on boosting her country’s growth, encouraging new oil production – rather than hampering it – would be a good place to start.