Treasures of the deep: How Brazil is profiting by sharing its 'gift from God'

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Thursday, November 2, 2017

A proposed strategic alliance between BP and Petrobras, mooted by both companies this week, comes as global oil majors line up to collaborate with Brazil's state-run energy giant.

In the past 15 months, Petrobras has signed cooperation deals with Statoil, Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, Total and CNPC as it recasts itself as an attractive partner following the calamitous effects of the Lava Jato corruption probe.

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While the details of the partnerships differ in their size and scope, all have one thing in common: a desire to jointly invest in the pre-salt layer, the deepwater region once described by former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as "God's gift to Brazil."

The immediate upshot is that companies have pledged billions of dollars of new investments. Aggressive bidding for new blocks has also provided a windfall for a government struggling to balance its budget.  

At two rights auctions last Friday, 10 of the world's biggest oil companies secured stakes in six pre-salt areas, pledging combined signature bonuses of US$1.9bn and agreeing to hand the government up to 80% of future oil production.

The auctions followed Brazil's 14th round for concession contracts in September, in which the government netted a record US$1.1bn in bonuses.

The success of the tender rounds offered a stark contrast to Brazil's last major oil auction in October 2015, when companies shunned a local industry ravaged by the Lava Jato fallout, a crude price downturn and the country's worst ever recession.

On that occasion - Brazil's 13th concession round - the government awarded just 37 of 266 blocks on offer. Tellingly, it marked the first time that Petrobras did not participate at a local oil rights tender.     

So what has changed? 

Apart from the obvious benefits of rising oil prices and a rebounding economy, plenty. 

Upon taking charge of Petrobras in May last year, CEO Pedro Parente vowed to slash costsimprove transparencyramp up production and sell non-core businesses in a bid to regain the confidence of investors. 

Since then the firm has cut debt by US$10bn and generated around US$25bn in free cash flow.

As a result, Petrobras once again played a key role in Brazil's oil auctions this year, securing stakes in seven Round 14 blocks and three pre-salt areas.

"The participation of Petrobras gave other companies more confidence to present bids," a company source, who asked to remain anonymous, told BNamericas. "That was clearly lacking in Round 13 two years ago."

The view is shared by Luciano Seixas Chagas, the head of oil and gas at the Brazilian federation of geologists (Febrageo).

"All [companies] want to be associated with Petrobras," Chagas told BNamericas in an October interview. "[It] has the best knowledge base and an exceptional strike rate, which minimizes the exploratory risk of discoveries in frontier areas to almost zero."

But a healthier and more active Petrobras only tells part of the story.

In the past year, the federal government has implemented a series of market-friendly policies to spur investments.

They include an easing of restrictions on private operators in pre-salt areas, lower local content requirements and a 20-year extension to the Repetro tax incentive program.

"The government has acknowledged that Brazil is competing against other countries to bring investment into the country," Adolpho Souza, the Brazil business development manager for oil services giant Schlumberger, told BNamericas in July.

"In that sense, I think the government and [hydrocarbons regulator] ANP are taking correct measures to create a good investment environment, and the recently approved E&P framework policy reiterates that."

The government says it will soon publish a six-year licensing round calendar - including at least one annual offering of pre-salt rights - to provide continuity in a local industry that has recently seen only sporadic opportunities for the acquisition of new acreage.

The busy auction schedule will help trigger oil and gas investments of around 1tn reais (US$310bn) over the next decade, according to the government's latest energy expansion plan.

It is also likely to mean that companies will continue to queue up for opportunities to join Petrobras in pursuit of pre-salt riches.