Brazil's Round 13 debacle: What went wrong?

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Thursday, October 8, 2015

Magda Chambriard made a valiant, if futile, attempt to smooth over the rasping result of Brazil's Round 13 first phase on Wednesday.

Despite just 37 of a possible 266 blocks being awarded, the head of national hydrocarbons regulator ANP adopted a pragmatic tone during a post-auction press conference.

"Even with low oil prices, small and medium-sized companies showed interest in mature areas," Chambriard said.

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She pointed to demand in the Parnaíba basin, where 11 of 22 blocks were snapped up, as cause for optimism.

Also encouraging, Chambriard said, was the participation of 11 Brazilian companies in an overall total of 17.

But for most onlookers, the outcome was nothing short of a failure.

Wednesday's auction was the worst result at a Brazilian oil licensing tender since the country opened the sector up to private investors in 1997.

NO PETROBRAS

Wednesday's bidding was marked by the absence of Petrobras, the state-controlled behemoth responsible for more than 90% of the country's hydrocarbon production.

The company did not submit an offer for the first time at a Brazilian oil auction as it grapples with a sprawling corruption scandal, stagnant cash flow and spiraling debt.

"Petrobras has always been a guarantee of success at Brazil's licensing rounds," Rio de Janeiro-based energy consultant Adriano Pires told BNamericas. "The fact the company was unable to compete shows that Brazil is yet to adapt to a new reality of cheaper oil prices."

Despite having registered to participate, BPRoyal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil Corp were also conspicuous by their absence. According to analysts, they were deterred by the oil price downturn and lack of high potential areas on offer. 

Pires said the result showed Brazil must revamp its licensing model, creating new incentives for foreign players with a clearly defined auction calendar.

"This was the first auction in two years and the last one before that was in 2008," said Pires, who is the founder and director of Centro Brasileiro de Infra Estrutura (CBIE). "There is no continuity or structure to attract investments. The other issue is that onshore and offshore blocks are placed in the same auction, despite being completely different in what they offer."

Alessandra Simões, an energy expert at Brazilian consultancy Uphill, said Petrobras' woes, combined with caps on foreign participation in the supply chain, took their toll on investor sentiment.

"The local industry has its limitations, which have been exacerbated by the Petrobras crisis," Simões told BNamericas.

The government, needing to boost revenue to reduce a gaping budget deficit, netted just 121mn reais (US$35mn) in signature bonuses from the auction. The figure was about 12% of the minimum from all blocks on offer.

TIME FOR A RETHINK

Chambriard said ANP and the government would "go home and analyze what went wrong."

She listed a host of possible reasons for Wednesday's poor result, admitting the Petrobras no-show had a telling impact.

"We are aware that companies seek partnerships with Petrobras and that could have been one of the reasons why many of them chose not to participate."

There is a feeling among industry observers that, if nothing else, the result shows the fraught nature of leaving an entire national industry at the mercy of a bloated state-run entity.

As the soul searching begins in Brasília, it might be an apt moment for lawmakers to reflect on whether it is time to change that.