Mexico: Private sector oil prospects
Declining production has been a feature of the Mexican oil industry for the better part of the past decade, though signs suggest 2012 could be the first year since 2004 to reverse the downward trend. Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), the state-owned oil firm, produced an average of 2.54m barrels per day (bpd) in the first nine months of 2012. According to Carlos Morales, director-general of production and exploration at PEMEX, production is set to increase to 2.6m bpd by December as a result of increased drilling. If the predicted increase occurs, PEMEX could at the very least halt the recent decline in production.
In 2011, Mexico produced 3.6% of the world’s oil, according to BP’s Statistical View of World Energy, released in June. Data from PEMEX indicates production averaged 2.55m bpd in 2011, representing a 1% decrease of 2010’s total of 2.58m bpd. However, it also represented a continuation of the falling production trend dating back to 2004 when oil production peaked at 3.4m bpd.
For the moment, Mexico remains Latin America’s largest oil producer, ahead of both Venezuela and Brazil, according to BP, though if current trends continue, it could be overtaken by either country in the medium-to-long term. Brazil increased its average daily production from 1.54m bpd in 2004 to 2.19m bpd in 2011. Meanwhile, Venezuela has been combating a short-term decline in production.
As production decreases, domestic consumption of oil has steadily risen, reaching 2.03m bpd in 2011, leading some analysts to suggest Mexico will become a net importer of oil in the medium to long term without sufficient investment in exploration and the opening of new fields. Indeed, proven oil reserves have drastically fallen over the past two decades, from 50.9bn barrels in 1990 to just 11.4bn barrels at the end of 2011, according to BP’s study.
Furthermore, Mexico’s reserve-to-production ratio now stands at 10.6 and is the second lowest in Latin America, with only Colombia trailing. This is in part due to a reliance on increasing output from large, ageing fields, such as the Cantarell oil field, and insufficient investment for the exploration of new deposits.
PEMEX has also been hindered by the fact that one of its largest discoveries, the Chicontepec Basin, consists of many small deposits scattered over vast territory. As a result, it has thus far not been able to significantly capitalise on the find. Indeed, Chicontepec has become symptomatic of the company’s recent struggle to reverse its decline in production. The basin, which holds some 40% of Mexico’s reserves, currently produces around just 70,000 bpd, despite significant investment, though PEMEX is seeking to increase output to 300,000 bpd by 2018.
Mexico’s oil industry is, and has been since 1938, controlled by PEMEX, as constitutional law prevents private companies from obtaining ownership rights to oil deposits. However, small reforms have recently allowed private international oil firms to bid for operating contracts with PEMEX. Thus far, two bidding rounds have taken place and eight contracts have been awarded. A third round of tenders is expected in July 2013 when six blocks of the Chicontepec Basin will be awarded to private oil firms. The six blocks are said to require an investment of $1.4bn between 2012 and 2016.
Further involvement of the private sector certainly represents a shift toward a more liberalised market. Nevertheless, without offering private companies a stake in ownership, increasing investment in exploration and acquiring technologies capable of extracting oil from tricky deposits, PEMEX will have a difficult time reversing production to peak levels.
Wider liberalisation of the industry has indeed been hotly debated in recent years and was an important theme in the presidential election in July. The country’s incoming president, Enrique Peña Nieto, will take office this December having made clear that the reformation of the oil industry is an important aspect of his agenda.
The likely new model will allow joint ventures between PEMEX and the private sector, helping PEMEX to increase output from its geologically “difficult” deposits. The possibility of a mechanism to allow for private companies to share in reaping the benefits of new discoveries has also not been completely disregarded, though any such reform from the incoming president will require the support of two-thirds of congress and the majority of state legislators to amend the constitution. As such, much will depend on the incoming administration’s ability to negotiate with opposition groups, a difficult – but necessary – task if the country is to stem the tide of its declining production.