As wells dry up, Mexico could be forced to privatize oil
Even as popular pressure grows around Latin America for a stronger state hand in developing natural resources such as oil and gas, Mexico's president-elect Felipe Calderón may be forced to consider putting more power in private hands.Skip to next paragraph
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The country's flagship oil company Pemex, has been a point of pride since the industry was wrenched from foreign hands and nationalized in 1938. Its revenues alone cover one-third of Mexico's budget.
But prosperity from years of record oil prices has allowed Mexico to postpone what most agree are much-needed reforms. And now, as production at Pemex's top oil field declines, pressure to find new fields is mounting. But industry analysts say Mexico's constitutional restriction on foreign direct investment will hamstring costly exploration efforts, and possibly disrupt the flow of oil, 80 percent of which heads to the US.
Indeed, with his fragile political mandate, Mr. Calderón may find that oil becomes the issue that will define his presidency.
"This is an important first battle," says Benito Nacif, a political scientist at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CRTE), a Mexico City think tank. "In the industry sector, there is a consensus that this reform is necessary, that you have to open it up [to the private sector]. The question is: 'Will [Calderón] be able to build sufficient [political] consensus?' "
Many industry analysts had hoped that outgoing President Vicente Fox would be able to push through energy-sector reforms to open up Pemex to more private direct investment, in order to boost exploration and production.
Mexico is the second-biggest supplier of oil to the US, favored because of its proximity and relative political stability.
In the end, Mr. Fox didn't push through a consitutional change, largely because trying to privative Pemex, even partially, is so politically unpopular.
Also, when Fox came to office in 2000, capacity at Cantarell, the world's second-largest field and Mexico's most important, was not in question. The complex, located in southern Gulf waters, actually increased production during Fox's term, peaking in 2004 with 2.1 million barrels a day.
But since then, production has been dropping off at Cantarell. David Shields, an independent energy expert in Mexico City, says production declined by 10 percent in the first six months of 2006. He contends that Pemex is in much worse shape than is publicly expressed. "Pemex says everything is great," he says. "But [Cantarell] is going to run out, and they [in the long-term] don't have other things to replace it."
Earlier this month, the state monopoly announced that crude output from another offshore field, Ku-Maloob-Zaap, was expected to double in 2009. That, Pemex officials said at a press conference, would help maintain oil production at an average 3.2 million barrels a day, and offset losses from Cantarell.
George Baker, an energy analyst at the consulting firm Energia.com in Houston, says he is not surprised by Pemex's announcement. "Pemex has a way of making magic," he says. Still, he says that potential finds in the Gulf of Mexico, similar to Chevron's recent announcement of a big discovery in US waters, are currently out of reach because Pemex does not have the technical know-how or money to undertake such exploration. The issues have been here all along, says Baker, but now that Cantarell is facing declines, "the slope downward is slipperier."
Experts say that American companies are watching oil production in Mexico, but because of politics, cannot interfere by pushing for more foreign participation. If the US needed to purchase oil from more-distant countries, additional transportation costs would be passed onto the consumer, Baker says.