Petrobras, Brazil's Oil Giant, Struggles to Regain Lost Swagger

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RIO DE JANEIRO -- Brazil's oil production is falling, casting doubt on what was supposed to be an oil bonanza. Imports of gasoline are rising rapidly, exposing the country to the whims of global energy markets. Even the nation's ethanol industry, once envied as a model of renewable energy, has had to import ethanol from the United States.

Half a decade has passed since Brazilians celebrated the discovery of huge amounts of oil in deep-sea fields by the national oil company, Petrobras, triumphantly positioning the country to surge into the top ranks of global producers. But now another kind of energy shock is unfolding: the colossal company, long known for its might, is losing the race to keep up with the nation's growing energy demands.

Saddled with a nationalist mandate to buy ships, oil platforms and other equipment from lethargic Brazilian companies, the oil giant is now facing soaring debt, major projects mired in delays and older fields, once prodigious, that are yielding less oil. The undersea bounty in its grasp also remains devilishly complex to exploit.

Now, instead of symbolizing Brazil's rise as a global powerhouse, Petrobras embodies the sluggishness of the nation's economy itself, which, after racing ahead at 7.5 percent in 2010, slowed to less than 1 percent last year, eclipsed by growth in other Latin American nations like Mexico and Peru.

Until recently, Petrobras was second in value only to ExxonMobil among publicly traded energy companies. But its fortunes have tumbled to the point that it is now worth less than Colombia's national oil company. That fall has accentuated an increasingly bitter debate here over PresidentDilma Rousseff's attempts to use Petrobras to shield the Brazilian population from the nation's economic slowdown.

"Petrobras was once thought indestructible, but that is no longer the case," said Adriano Pires, a prominent Brazilian energy consultant. "Petrobras is now a tool of short-term economic policy, used to protect domestic industry from competition and fight inflation. This disastrous process will intensify if it is not reversed."

Ms. Rousseff, like her predecessor and political mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has relied heavily on state companies like Petrobras to create jobs and spur the economy. As a result, the president and her top advisers argue, unemployment remains near historic lows, an approach in economic management that contrasts sharply with Europe and the United States.

In a recent speech, Ms. Rousseff explained that her government's priority was lifting millions of Brazilians out of poverty.

"Those betting against us," she warned, "will suffer serious financial and political losses."

Bolstering Ms. Rousseff's approval ratings going into a presidential election in 2014, Petrobras is building new refineries, pursuing offshore oil and buying most of its equipment from Brazilian companies, all of which have created tens of thousands of jobs and delivered some tangible political benefits.

"My life is better," said Adinael Soares Silva, 38, a welder at a Petrobras refinery under construction in Itaboraí, a city near Rio de Janeiro. He said he was pleased with his salary of about $800 a month. "Where I was, I didn't have enough to have a savings account," he said. "Now I do."

But while Petrobras has helped keep Brazil's unemployment low, around 5.4 percent, a growing chorus of critics point to the obvious problems at the company, including its backlog of projects and an inability to satisfy the country's thirst for oil, forcing it to import foreign gasoline and sell it at a loss.

After Brazil made its deep-sea oil discoveries in 2007, the government pushed to put Petrobras firmly in control of the new areas, a move that critics say could strain the company even further. It was a marked departure from the 1990s, when authorities ended Petrobras's monopoly as part of a radical restructuring of the economy. Petrobras remained under state control but was exposed to market forces, emerging as a hybrid nimbly competing with foreign oil companies.

Today, Petrobras seems far less nimble. In 2012, its production fell 2 percent, the first such decline in years, and output fell slightly again at the start of this year.

The international energy industry is also changing, especially in the United States, as momentum shifts toward extracting oil and natural gas from onshore shale formations. Brazil is thought to have large shale reserves itself, but the government remains focused on its costly deep-sea megaprojects.

"The United States is redrawing the global petroleum map, while in Brazil euphoria has given way to inertia," Folha de São Paulo, one of Brazil's most influential newspapers, said in a recent editorial.

Compounding matters, Brazil's demand for gasoline surged about 20 percent in 2012, reflecting a car-manufacturing industry that has boomed partly as a result of government efforts to lift production.

Petrobras still lacks enough refineries able to process crude oil, forcing it to buy increasing amounts of gasoline from abroad. And it still is losing money on gasoline imports as the government keeps domestic fuel prices relatively low, to keep inflation from accelerating in a slow-growing economy.

Energy analysts contend that the central government is using Petrobras to further its own political objectives. Ms. Rousseff's administration, for instance, has hewed to measures aimed at reviving the country's shipbuilding industry, by requiring Petrobras to buy many of its ships and oil platforms from Brazilian shipyards.

These ventures, however, have struggled with large cost overruns of their own, sometimes delivering vessels late or not at all, cutting into Petrobras's hopes of meeting ambitious production targets.

Then there are the delays at oil refineries under construction. One such complex, in Pernambuco State, was conceived in 2005 as a way for Brazil to forge closer political ties with oil-rich Venezuela. Eight years later, Venezuela has yet to invest in the project, which has faced various delays as Petrobras shoulders the entire cost of building it.

Describing the accumulation of problems at Petrobras, Exame, Brazil's top business magazine, bluntly accused the government of "destroying Brazil's largest company," accompanying the claim with an illustration of a fuel dispenser from a filling station in the shape of a noose.

The sense of dismay reflects, at least in part, Petrobras's stature. Founded in 1953, it wields clout from its Brutalist-style headquarters here in spheres well beyond the energy industry, sponsoring everything from literary festivals to the Carnival celebration in Salvador, a city in northeast Brazil.

Despite the challenges it faces, Petrobras remains profitable and much less constrained by political ideology than some other large national oil companies. In Mexico, for instance, Pemex has long retained its monopoly status despite production declines, and now the government is considering opening it to greater private investment.

Petrobras is also far more transparent than Petróleos de Venezuela, the national oil company thatHugo Chávez, the late president, transformed into an extremely politicized pillar of his government, purging it of thousands of employees after a bitter strike and forcing it to focus on new tasks like food distribution.

Maria das Graças Foster, the chief executive of Petrobras, has been exceptionally frank about the company's problems. In recent conference calls with analysts, she said that oil production should remain steady this year or perhaps even decline slightly again. But she also responded sharply to critics, claiming that output from the new deep-sea fields had reached 300,000 barrels a day. By 2020, the company expects to double overall production to 4.2 million barrels a day.

Other executives at the company have similarly sought to temper expectations that Brazil will enter a robust phase of energy independence.

José Carlos Cosenza, a top Petrobras executive, has warned that Brazil may need to import large amounts of fuel for almost another decade. Moreover, gasoline demand is expected to climb even higher as Brazilians buy more cars.

Still, Petrobras may need more than tough self-assessments.

"Given the growing attractiveness of oil plays elsewhere in the world, energy markets are waiting for a change in the way Brazil's government manages its oil resources," said Christopher Garman, the head of emerging market strategy at Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm.

Taylor Barnes contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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