Brazil, Economy, Energy, Environmental Conservation, Inter-American Relations, Mexico, Venezuela

State of Petro: National oil in the Americas

Energy is ever more becoming the piston driving Latin America to the contemporary world stage.

This reality arrives in lieu of major Chinese and Russian investments in Venezuela’s petroleum belt, Mexico’s intense debate over how to diversify foreign investment in its state-run energy powerhouse, and Brazil’s ever-expanding oil coffers that continue to propel its economy upward in the face of a global economic recession.

These three states lead energy production in Latin America and will increasingly become a lifeline for the world’s swelling consumer demand, and key to its sustainable growth. Petroleum and natural gas have for a time been assets sought heavily by the US and Europe, but now draw clientele from the surging populace of China, India, and wider Eurasia.

Amid this equation, guaranteed global supplies remain variable, tending to degrade in both refining ease and reserve accessibility. This, coupled with security concerns in the Middle East, marks a unique opportunity for the region to fund much needed domestic reform and present viable energy initiatives to the international community, beyond the distant third tier.

A fundamental challenge in scaling these energy companies to meet such global demand will be the state’s ability to balance its investment and revenue model. All three of these Latin American countries highlighted here have state-run energy sectors, though all are not created equal. For a more informative look, see the comparative breakdown below:

Country México Brazil Venezuela
Founded 1938 1953 1975
Petro Profile Heavy Crude (2/3, Maya), Light Crude (1/3, Isthmus & Olmeca) Predominantly Heavy Crude (Marlim), although newly discovered, subsalt fields are of Light grade and Sweet substance Almost entirely Extra-Heavy Crude, of Sour substance (high sulfur)
Proven Reserve Capacity 10-13.68 billion 12.35 billion 99 billion
Largest Reserve Cantarell Sugar Loaf Orinoco Belt
Onshore / Offshore % 20/80 40/60 Predominately onshore reserves, spread across 4 principal fields. Shallow water reserves in the Maracaibo Basin
Production Output 2.8 million bbl/d 2.72 million bbl/d 1.5 million bbl/d
Refining Capabilities 1.5 million bbl/d (6 refineries) 2.223 million bbl/d (16 refineries) 1.28 million bbl/d (Domestic & foreign refineries- Citgo USA)
Annual Revenue US $98 Billion (2008) US $118.3 billion (2008) US $120 billion (2008), est. US $50 billion  (2009)
Foreign Investors Sparse due to tight regulation by state apparatus, although the Calderón adminstration has opened doors for foreign investment on the deep sea exploration front Private sector energy (Shell, Cheveron), BP (biofuels), China Previous investors included major intl. petroleum giants, but after state reappropriation, Russia, Iran, China, & Brazil have agreed to looser terms under the Bolivarian regime
Principal Export Recipient(s) United States Largely utilized for growing domestic consumption, biofuels (ethanol) make up bulk of energy export United States & Europe, China fastest growing consumer

SOURCES: US Energy Information Administration, Oil & Gas Journal, Business Week, CIA World Factbook

These numbers are enlightening in the sense that they present a snapshot of current carrying capacity and orientation of each state’s petroleum sector. However, a deeper study of energy futures can prove to be a bit speculative.

In the case of México, PEMEX has long been the case study on state investment of natural resource and economic autonomy. It relies heavily on taxes from its rich output to fund an array of federal initiatives and deliver energy to the Mexican consumer at a subsidized price. But, wrought with declining output on its principal oil field, Cantarell, the company has a need to exploit deeper off-shore deposits that require sophisticated equipment and a niche expertise– tasks honed upon by transnational powerhouses such as ExxonMobil, BP, and other state companies such as PETROBRAS. Due to this shifting source dynamic, the Calderón administration has worked diligently to promote external investment. This however remains a major political hot button due to historic precedent, as the industry’s sovereignty is seen as a sacred right to the Mexican populace. PEMEX has more than the necessary resources to carry onward, but significant institutional reform will remain fundamental.

PETROBRAS has gained measurable authority in the international energy sector both for the diversification of its investments, and the expertise of its workforce. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has worked diligently to build a state model that profit shares with private enterprise, while promoting a solid domestic refining infrastructure. Recent offshore discoveries in sub-salt reserves via the Tupi fields continue to grow the Brazilian lot, while Brazilian officials are aiming to funnel revenue to direct state initiatives and maintain energy independence. For the time being, Brazil appears to be playing its cards right to promote sizable production in means to maximize internal growth. It will be interesting to see when it goes net positive in its production, to which countries it will direct its resources.

Turning to the more volatile petroleum sector, Venezuela has seen its share of production ebbs and waves in the past decade. President Hugo Chávez has too tapped into the ‘petro vein’ to fund large swaths of state initiatives, however often with a playbook at odds with much of its professional workforce. Lack of international investment (due to restrictive reappropriation efforts) and flight of expertise have reduced export capacity and bogged down exploratory projects in the Llanos sector and Orinoco Basin. The state energy company, PDVSA, however sits upon perhaps the world’s largest crude reserves in the Orinoco Belt, rivaling fields in Saudi Arabia. Due to its heavy tar-like viscosity though, special refining capabilities are needed to extract petroleum from sand and sludge– a role the United States currently fulfills. This is where large investment by China and Russia will float PDVSA initiatives in the near future despite waste from within. This, while the Venezuelan state maintains institutional direction and pads its GDP.

Overall, with the exception of Brazilian offshore reserves, it appears that most new petroleum pools are of heavier grade crude. This will require a more expensive refining process and specialized facilities, promoting favorable conditions for foreign direct investment (FDI) and transnational partnerships.

The manner in which each of these companies respond to its new role in the world energy sector will be developments watched closely by all, but seems to present favorable prospects to a long-forgotten region.

Agriculture, Brazil, Environmental Conservation

Back to the Brazilian Bush


The Latin American political front has been blustering with activity these past few weeks. We’ve see a new Paraguayan president set to bust a 60-year political machine, yet another flair in the saga of parapolitica in the Colombian highlands, Mexico’s divisive prospects of foreign investment in Pemex amid an escalating drug war, and Bolivian civil strife, all while Argentina braces for ‘round 2’ of economic standoff with agribusiness in hopes to stave off further domestic inflation.

Though, this past weekend the plight of the Brazilian Amazon upstaged other regional debacles in the press. Both the Washington Post and the Financial Times ran feature length articles on sustainable development in the Mato Grosso region at the country’s Amazon basin fringe. The topic has seen the light of day much before, but now stands against the backdrop of swelling food prices and surging demand for raw commodities. So begs the question, is the rapid growth of Brazilian agribusiness a perverse or venerable force?

In terms of environmental capacity, the excessive clearing of land in outlying rural sectors of Brazil devastates in the long term when one considers that each vegetated hectare emits a potential of 200 tons of carbon dioxide; in the country considered the ‘world’s lungs’, that amounts to an estimated 298 million tons respectively. Beyond implications for global climate change, the Amazon’s biodiversity is unparalleled in both flora and fauna. It houses the A-Z of pharmaceutical elements, alongside species seen nowhere else on the planet. Bottom line— expansive clearing of rainforest would prove to only exacerbate the decline of natural resources and the onset of climate change in years to follow (and we think this food crisis bites hard now).

So then, could there be any redemptive value in the surge of Brazilian agricultural industry? The Financial Time‘s Jonathan Wheatley argues so with aims to meet global food demand:

“The country has enormous reserves of unused arable land, most of it currently serving as under-productive pasture, that could easily and cheaply be turned over to production of grains and other foods. The problem is that much of Brazil’s farm produce continues to face prohibitive tariffs and other barriers to developed markets in Europe and the US.”

While this is a definite reality, it move still fails to address the carbon footprint voided to once make way for these pastured swaths. In any case, would the lands’ transformation be enough to quell rapid clearing in the ill-governed districts of rural Brazil?

The plausible solution outlined in both print articles this week? The carbon credit, organic certification standards, and conservatory incentives- at least in the long term. Nonprofit organizations such as Aliança da Terra are aiming to bridge the gap between environmental vanguards and responsible farmers by kick-starting reforestation of cleared lands with perks to those following conservation laws. In short, use economic leverage to thwart deforestation, while facilitating the real need for farmers to make a viable living in lieu of global market demands.

As Jack Chang of McClatchy Newspapers informs us however, the international spotlight on land management has rattled the bees’ nest domestically in the southern powerhouse:

“Brazil has entered one of its occasional panics about the Amazon and what it sees as foreign designs on the immense biosystem… It all goes to show how any international effort to save the forest needs to take account these real sensitivities. Sure, the Amazon is a global treasure, but before anything, it’s Brazilian.”

In any case, it’s refreshing to see that the issue is drawing some forum of critical debate, even if it required a global food crisis to brush upon the complexities of this Amazonian dilemma.

Employment, Environmental Conservation, Venezuela

In search of ‘El Dorado’ redux

It’s no secret that the prospect of flowing gold and oyster-sized pearls drew hordes of Europeans to the Americas. It was the stuff of legends — one a man could profit handsomely from a voyage into the New World, raiding and pillaging the fortunes laid before them. Profit was bestowed upon the daring opportunist. Entrepreneurs saw in the virgin markets an opportunity to project themselves up the socioeconomic ladder that disenfranchised many in the rigid hierarchy of Europe. Vendors operated outside the lines of state control, evading taxation and largely ignoring restrictions on trade in favor of their own operations.

Passing through the countless museums across Latin America, one would imagine that those legends and tendencies were long buried in the past. Yet, ironically not much has actually changed. Sure enough, the Americas are steeped in natural resources that profit many handsomely. But even as no mystic treasures along the epic scale of ‘El Dorado’ were to be discovered, its search continues among the large mining conglomerates and campesinos trying to make ends meet.

The following clip from the ‘El Dorado’ film series produced by the documentary site,, provides an interesting glimpse of this phenomena in Southeast Venezuela:

While the potent mercury released into the rivers of Venezuela may seem a fringe consequence, these tendencies continue to manifest across natural realms of the Americas. States are increasingly struck with pressures to consecutively protect environmental resources, balance the demand of commercial markets, and permit a measurable standard of living amongst its populace. Nope folks, ‘El Dorado’ lives on in the heart of many Latin Americans and those who seek its resources alike.