By Joe Leahy/Financial Times
On the Cidade de Angra dos Reis oil platform, surrounded by the deep blue South Atlantic, a Petrobras engineer turns on a tap and watches black liquid flow into a beaker.
It looks and smells like ordinary crude oil. But for Brazil, this represents something much more spectacular. Pumped by the national oil company from “pre-salt” deposits – so-called because they lie beneath 2,000m of salt – 300km off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, it is some of the first commercial oil to flow from the country’s giant new deepwater discoveries.
Already estimated to contain 50bn barrels, and with much of the area still to be fully explored, the fields contain the world’s largest known offshore oil deposits. In one step, Brazil could jump up the world rankings of national oil reserves and production, from 15th to fifth. So great are the discoveries, and the investment required to exploit them, that they have the potential to transform the country – for good or for ill.
“This could be the largest private sector investment programme in the history of mankind – more than actually putting a man on the moon,” says Pedro Cordeiro of the Bain & Company consultancy in São Paulo. He estimates the total investment could be roughly equivalent to the annual gross domestic product of Australia. “Not counting new concessions, you will have $1,000bn of investment over the next 10 years. It’s huge.”
Deepwater oil production is hazardous, as the leak last year at BP’s Macondo well in the Mexican Gulf showed. But if all goes to plan, the discoveries will provide Brazil with a full tank of petrol at a time when its exports of iron ore, soyabeans and other commodities are already driving a boom. Latin America’s biggest economy grew 7.5 per cent last year and is expected to grow by nearly 5 per cent in 2011. Longer term, expected increases in the oil price driven by the nuclear crisis in Japan and political unrest in the Middle East will only help to make drilling deepwater oil more profitable.
Having seen out booms and busts before, Brazilians are hoping that this time “the country of the future” will at last realise its full economic potential. The hope is that the discoveries will provide a nation already rich in renewable energy with an embarrassment of resources with which to pursue the goal of becoming a US of the south.
The country’s scientists and industrialists see in the deposits the seeds of an oil-driven technological renaissance, which would speed Brazil’s race towards developed nation status. Economists, however, see a threat as well as a promise.
The danger for Brazil, if it fails to manage this windfall wisely, is of falling victim to “Dutch disease”. The economic malaise is named after the Netherlands in the 1970s, where the manufacturing sector withered after its currency strengthened on the back of a large gas field discovery combined with rising energy prices.
Even worse, Brazil could suffer a more severe form of the disease, the “oil curse”, whereby nations rich in natural resources – Nigeria and Venezuela, for example – grow addicted to the money that flows from them. This leads to poor governance and corruption.
Some argue that, oil finds aside, Brazil is already in the early stages of Dutch disease. Exporters and domestic manufacturers are struggling to compete globally as Chinese demand for the country’s commodities drives up the value of the real. The currency has strengthened about 40 per cent against the dollar in two years. The problem has become so acute that Brazil has condemned what it calls a worldwide “currency war”, alleging its trading partners are manipulating their exchange rates to keep them artificially low.
“[Brazil’s] Dutch disease comes from timber and meat, and all kinds of natural resources, not just oil,” says Professor Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard University, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. “The oil could bring it to a whole new level.”
José Sergio Gabrielli, Petrobras chief executive, says neither the company nor the country’s oil industry has so far been big enough to become a government cash cow. But with the new discoveries, which stretch across an 800km belt off the coast of south-eastern Brazil, this is going to change. The oil industry could grow from about 10 per cent of GDP to up to 25 per cent in the coming decades, analysts say. To curb any negative effects, Brazil is trying to support domestic manufacturing by increasing “local content” requirements in the oil industry.
Without a “firm local content policy”, says Mr Gabrielli, Dutch disease and the oil curse will take hold. However, “if we have a firm and successful local content policy, no – because other sectors in the economy are going to grow as fast as Petrobras”.
The company has set a target of 53 per cent local content for new oil projects, compared with the old compulsory minimum of 30 per cent. This policy will be put to the test by the new discoveries, which will require scores of oil tankers, platforms and drilling rigs. Petrobras is planning to invest an initial $224bn in the discoveries by 2014. Last year, it raised $70bn from the world’s largest equity offering to finance the plan.
The other long-term dividend Brazil is seeking from the discoveries is in R&D. Extracting oil from beneath a layer of salt at great depth, hundreds of kilometres from the coast, is so challenging that Brazilian engineers see it as a new frontier. If they can perfect this, they can lead the way in other markets with similar geology, such as Africa.
Segen Estefen of Coppe, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s engineering centre, says the institution is developing a technology hub at llha do Fundão in the city’s Guanabara Bay to help exploit the discoveries. International oil services companies, including French-based Schlumberger, and multinationals such as IBM and General Electric, are setting up laboratories. “The example of Silicon Valley can be applied here,” he says.
For its part, Petrobras is spending $800m-$900m a year over the next five years on R&D, and has invested $700m in the expansion of its research centre, Cenpes, located near Coppe.
However, analysts believe that some government efforts to capitalise on the discoveries risk backfiring. To try to enforce the local content system, Brasília has made Petrobras the sole operator of fields in the new discoveries, with a minimum 30 per cent stake in any project in the area. In the past, any company could bid for a block on an equal footing. It has also set up a 100 per cent government-controlled company that will have the power of veto over investment decisions in each block.
Making Petrobras the sole operator will reduce competition, analysts say. In addition, there are worries that both the oil company and its local suppliers are becoming overstretched. Petrobras recently pulled out of oil exploration in Cuba, for example, citing investment commitments at home.
“Given that local suppliers are already struggling to meet Petrobras’ current demands . . . the risk of cost overruns and delays is significant,” Eurasia Group analyst Erasto Almeida wrote in a recent research note on the new discoveries.
Ultimately, Brazil’s ability to avoid Dutch disease will depend not just on how the money from the oil is spent. The country is the world’s second biggest exporter of iron ore. It is the largest exporter of beef. It is also the biggest producer of sugar, coffee and orange juice, and the second-largest producer of soyabeans.
Exports of these commodities are already driving up the exchange rate before the new oil fields have fully come on stream, making it harder for Brazilian exporters of manufactured goods. Industrial production has faltered in recent months, with manufacturers blaming the trend on a flood of cheap Chinese-made imports.
“Brazil has everything that China doesn’t and it’s natural that, as China continues to grow, it’s just going to be starved for those resources,” says Harvard’s Prof Rogoff. “At some level Brazil doesn’t just want to be exporting natural resources – it wants a more diversified economy. There are going to be some rising tensions over that.”
The government might try to counter any decline in Brazil’s industrial strength by increasing its investment in “local champions” in agriculture and mining. Other areas of industry, such as defence, which has local content requirements, could benefit too. Brazil’s development bank, BNDES, has lent nearly $200bn in the past two years to large companies. It is reducing lending this year but will remain one of the nation’s biggest creditors.
‘The spillover impact from research is going to be very important’
Far from the sands of Copacabana, on one of many islands in the large Guanabara Bay to the north-east of Brazil’s most famous city, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and Petrobras aim to derive a technological dividend from the country’s huge Atlantic Ocean oil finds.
As the national oil company admits, the fields represent a new frontier for the industry. The crude is encased beneath a 2km-thick layer of salt that, unlike rock, shifts during drilling. The fields contain corrosive substances such as hydrogen sulphide. Because of their depth, water pressure can be twice normal levels. No one knows how the reservoirs will behave once large-scale commercial production begins.
The challenges of deepwater oil drilling were highlighted by last year’s BP’s leak in the Mexican Gulf but scientists at Petrobras are undaunted. “We are not scared about pre-salt at all – it’s very important for us to say that,” Carlos Tadeu da Costa Fraga, executive manager of Cenpes, the company’s research centre, says of the form the deposits take.
Tackling the demands of extracting pre-salt oil has become the main research project for Cenpes and neighbouring Coppe, the university’s engineering centre. Coppe has built an “ocean tank” that it says is the world’s largest. Housed in the equivalent of an eight-storey building, the tank simulates wave patterns and currents in the Atlantic to measure the effects on oil platforms and other equipment.
The layers of salt make it tricky to use seismic imaging techniques. But José Sergio Gabrielli, Petrobras’s chief executive, says that to process data the company has assembled computing power of about 190 teraflops, the largest such capacity in Latin America. It is equivalent to more than 25,000 personal computers.
The research will “have a spillover impact on Brazilian technology that’s going to be very important”, he says.
Analysts say Brazil is right to try to capitalise on the technological side of its pre-salt discoveries. Norway was able to use its 1960s discoveries to convert itself from a fishing exporter into an oilfield services expert.
Pedro Cordeiro, a partner with the Bain & Company consultancy in São Paulo, likens the task to a chocolate soufflé. Brazil has all the right ingredients to create an oil services centre to rival Houston, Texas – but the skill is in the baking.
“If the government plays its cards right – and so far there’s no reason to believe that they won’t – you could actually have one of the oilfield services poles for the world here,” he says. “Multinationals will have to come.” But if the system became too protectionist, Brazil might lose out. “Many countries tried to create an oil industry and it just didn’t happen.”