Institute of the Americas: XXVI La Jolla Energy Conference

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Since the early nineties, the Institute of the Americas at the University of California, San Diego campus has promoted an energy dialog bringing together top level executives, academics, consultants, hands on practitioners and journalists.  The exchange of information is always enlightening and the President and the staff of the Institute, especially Jeremy Martin, deserve kudos for promoting and organizing this important two-day meeting.

Here is the link to the event with the list of topics and of the distinguished speakers and panelists: https://www.iamericas.org/lajolla/

This year’s meeting could hardly have taken place at a better time.  The political economic crisis in Venezuela is ongoing, Brazil is in the midst of its second impeachment or presidential change in less than a year, Argentina’s new administration is seeking a more open and market oriented path for the use of its extensive oil/gas resources and suddenly, the small and often neglected Guyana is facing a surfeit of riches with the recent discovery of major offshore reserves.

The picture at the beginning of this text is of the panel: Brazil’s Energy Reset. On the left is Paulo Sotero, a journalist by trade and the Director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C.  Seated with him are Rafael Ferreira of the state sponsored Energy Research Office and Andre Regra of Brazil’s regulatory ANP (Agencia Nacional do Petroleo).  Jay Thorseth, a Latin American Director for British Petroleum is between Andre and Rafael.

The perspectives from Brazil panel were quite representative of the other discussion at the Conference.  While each country has its particularities, representatives of the public sector, the private sector and academia or journalists showed unique perspectives.  Both Andre and Ricardo, for example, emphasized the reset of Brazil’s energy sector and hued pretty much to the government narrative.  Implicit in their presentations was the shift from a nationalistic PT (Brazilian Labor Party) perspective to greater market openness.  Both noted Brazil’s resumption of oil field auctions and the reduction of local content requirement that had previously put off many international investors and oil companies.  Jay Thorseth of BP, while polite and diplomatic, presented the private sector’s perspective, emphasizing the need for market realism.  Thorseth said governments need to favor foreign companies to be competitive and to access to capital, technology, knowledge and skills.  Auction and participation terms need to take into account Brazil’s need to be an attractive destination world-wide in terms of cost, profit and royalty payments.  If there are better deals elsewhere, then it is likely that the big oil companies or the so-called majors will favor these over a restricted Brazilian market.

Paulo Sotero started by remembering his previous writing on the major crisis and downfall of Brazil’s economic and political system.  This reminder, while obvious, became something of the elephant in the room.  Presenters with government ties were loath to recognize that their initiatives toward opening the energy sector depend not only on technocratic criteria but also on politics.  Thus, when Brazil’s President Temer departs, his replacement will reorder the chairs in the oil sector and in public companies like Petrobras and others in energy production and distribution.  Likewise in Mexico, President Pena Neto is in the last year of his term and essentially a lame duck.  If AMLO (Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador), a popular figure on Mexico’s left, is elected, Mexico’s energy reset will also certainly have a different orientation.   Representatives from Mexico’s public companies emphasized change in legislation in the hope of ongoing modernization and expansion of both oil and gas exploration and distribution in partnership with the private sector.  Optimistically speaking, resource nationalism is seemingly buried, but in Latin America it often rises phoenix like.  Private sector players must always be worried about institutional weakness as regulations and norms or the lack thereof thwart intentions.  Governments and businesses want to mobilize Latin America’s ample energy resources but this depends on the modernization, increased transparency, and durability of the rules of the game.  And these rules, in spite of promised advances, are still being negotiated.

The Conference provided a lot of detail on resources, processes, government action and private company plans.  The major discovery of oil in Guyana certainly will impact markets and already directly affects Venezuela and Brazil.

Finally, the presenters noted that even for traditional oil and gas players, alternative energy is now mainstream and has great significance and unlimited potential for development.  Nevertheless, petroleum and its derivatives will be the major source of energy for their economies for at least another generation.

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Energy Secretary Moniz in Brazil

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz  travelled to Latin America last week representing Obama at the inauguration of Paraguay’s new president. On the way, Moniz stopped in Brazil and met with Edison Lobao, Brazil’s Minister of Mines and Energy.  The meeting, mainly due to Paraguay, turned out to be productive.

Here is a link to the White House Fact Sheet on energy related issues that were discussed at the meeting: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/04/09/fact-sheet-us-brazil-strategic-energy-dialogue

The U.S. is lobbying Brazil for a greater presence in the development of its vast energy resources from the Pre-Sal oil fields to “clean energy” such as wind and biofuels.  From published reports, it looks like the popular topic was the possible role that the U.S. could play in the development of Brazil’s shale resources mainly for the extraction of natural gas.

Given the fracking rush in the U.S., I am curious about what resources and interest are actually available.  Nevertheless, the political and business visit demonstrates that after the street protests, things are returning to the Brazilian “normal”.  Investments continue to be made in spite of difficulties,  bureaucratic obstacles and obscure political interests standing in the way.  It is business as “unusual” in its usual fashion in Brazil.

There is certainly interest in alternative projects such as solar and wind, but money and returns dictate the action in the tried-and-true paths where the traditional players have already mapped out the players and have an idea of what they can do.

Certainly, with the devaluation of the Real and the threat of inflation, American and other foreign investors gain a bit more leverage as the Brazilian government once again finds itself in need of maintaining a strong flow of foreign direct investment in an increasingly adverse economic environment.