Industry upbeat on Obama-Chávez handshake

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

As the international media debated the significance of US President Barack Obama's handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad & Tobago, industry analysts and insiders were hopeful that the gesture could signal a warming of relations between the two countries.

It could take more than a simple handshake, however, to restore investor confidence in one of the region's largest oil producing countries.

"I think global oil companies, American and otherwise, do care very much about political relationships and the general business climate in Venezuela. A business-friendly environment can open doors on both sides to greater opportunity," Gianna Bern, an energy analyst and president of Chicago-based Brookshire Advisory and Research, told BNamericas.

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"Having said that, time will tell if there is change in policy between the US and Venezuela. My impression is that the Obama administration is making overtures, albeit small ones, to Venezuela that could be steps toward greater dialogue," she continued, adding that global oil companies would always be interested in the country because of its vast reserves.

Corina Monaghan, a trade credit and political risk analyst with US-based risk management consultancy Aon, said in an interview that the meeting between the two leaders would impact other industries before changing the status quo for the oil and gas industries.

"I think the meeting between Obama and Chávez will, in the short run, have a positive impact on industries other than oil and gas," she said, noting that she was speaking on her own accord and not for Aon.

"Eventually, if those commercial and diplomatic relations work and the administrations truly fall in love again, then yes it may reduce the risk [for oil companies that might want to participate in new blocks being offered in the country]," she added.

International oil companies are paying attention and closely follow the political climate in both countries, PFC energy analyst RoseAnne Franco said.

"For international oil companies, there is an innate awareness of the condition of state-to-state relations with host countries, and for US companies in Venezuela this has been a particularly tentative couple of years," she said.

"The negative perception has been an added challenge for IOCs in dealing with their shareholders at home. Perceptions do not get erased overnight, but this past weekend's meeting is an encouraging start," Franco said.

Oil companies already operating in the region, meanwhile, will be waiting to see concrete changes before ceasing to view the US relationship with Venezuela with some degree of skepticism, and the US overtures towards Cuba may outshine any initial reaction to Obama's meeting with Chávez.

"From an oil company perspective, the warming of relations with Cuba is far more interesting than the grip and grin between Obama and Chávez. The prospect of US companies one day getting access to offshore oil and gas exploration in Cuba is tantalizing," a Caracas-based oil executive said, adding that little had changed vis-à-vis Venezuela.

"The country still has a long way to go to demonstrate political stability, contract sanctity, financial solvency and operational competency to oil and gas investors. The best thing Chávez can do is to stop worrying about the cameras and start making payments to contractors and foreign investors," the executive said. "There is no foreign investment being made today in the oil and gas sector in Venezuela, just a pile of signed agreements with lofty promises."