Recent reforms that would open oil exploration and development in Mexico to major oil companies for the first time in decades has the media all atwitter about the prospects of a reversal in declining Mexican oil output and a possible doubling of production. The reforms have brought out comparisons with Brazil which has a similar arrangement in which the country's state-owned oil company works with major international oil giants to develop Brazil's petroleum resources. Adding to the frothy atmosphere, former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva proposed a partnership between Mexico and Brazil to develop oil resources in both countries.
In a world with daily average oil prices hovering near record levels, such news might be welcome if only we could actually count on the accompanying optimistic production forecasts. But, it's instructive to look at what actually happened in Brazil since the time its potential as a major new oil producer was touted several years ago.
Brazil had discovered large oil deposits in ultradeep (30,000 feet down) reservoirs far offshore. In 2009, Petroleo Brasileiro SA (Petrobras), Brazil's state-owned oil company, announced that it would invest approxmately $175 billion in oil exploration over several years to boost Brazilian liquid fuel production from 2.4 million barrels per day (mbpd) in 2008 of oil, biofuels and other liquids to 4.6 mbpd in 2015, a move that would make the country a major oil exporter.
Let's see what kind of progress Brazil has made so far. In 2012 the country produced 2.65 mbpd of liquid fuels, making hardly any progress toward the goal announced for 2015. (The figures for oil proper, that is crude oil plus lease condensate which is the definition of oil, were 1.81 mbpd in 2008 and 2.06 mbpd in 2012.) In fact, instead of contributing to the worldwide supply of exports, Brazil remains a net importer of oil according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), and those imports grew from 36,470 barrels per day in 2011 to 155,040 barrels per day in 2012.
The large Brazilian oil company OGX Petróleo e Gas Participações SA filed for bankruptcy recently "after disappointing output from offshore OGX wells set off a crisis of investor confidence," according to Reuters. It's no surprise that state-owned Petrobras is also finding it far more difficult to exploit its deep sea oil resources than originally anticipated. Admittedly, there are other problems at Petrobras. It has become a tool of economic policy for keeping unemployment low, saddling it with investments that it might not otherwise have made as a private company. But that doesn't change the fact that exploiting oil far offshore at extreme depths is difficult.
Mexico's state-run oil monopoly, Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), has seen its production drop from 3.45 mbpd of crude oil proper in 2004 to just 2.59 mbpd in 2012 according the EIA. Reforms that will give international oil companies new access to Mexican oil fields are supposed to change that trend. It's one thing to let private companies drill previously monopolized fields. It's another to raise overall nationwide production significantly as a result. Just ask the Brazilians. The easy-to-get oil has already been harvested in Mexico and Brazil. The hard-to-get oil comes next, and well...it's proving hard to get.
Will Mexico fare better than Brazil? Art Berman, a petroleum geologist and consultant who accurately forecast the bust for shale gas investors, offered this analysis in a recent email:
I have worked in Mexico since the early 1990s inside Pemex. There is a reason that no significant discoveries have been made since the 1970s--no reservoirs.
The Campeche Sound [in the Bay of Campeche] has reservoirs thanks to the biggest frack job ever, the Chicxulub meteor impact. The Golden Lane reef trend, discovered much earlier, has been fully explored with no new discoveries. Beyond that, almost nada.
The Eagle Ford Shale play [in Texas] extends into Mexico and, so far, all tests have yielded [natural] gas. There is a potential oil play in the Tampico area from the El Abra Shale that sourced the Golden Lane. The Chicontepec tight calcarenite play contains huge oil [resources] that no one has figured out how to exploit commercially as recently as in the last few years. The deep-water Gulf of Mexico has serious reservoir problems in Mexico.
Add it all up and we are left with the same sense that there should be huge remaining undiscovered reserves in Mexico that an awful lot of smart foreign companies (Amoco, BP, Chevron, Exxon, Shell, etc.) have been unable to discover working closely [through service contracts] with Pemex since the 1980s.
As far as the Citi [Citigroup Inc.] estimates go [projecting a doubling of Mexican production which is mentioned and linked above], mucho ruido, pocos nueces (much ado about nothing; literally, lots of noise, no nuts).
Jeffrey Brown, an independent petroleum geologist best known for his Export Land Model weighed in as well on Mexico's oil future. Brown's model, first released publicly in 2006, correctly forecast shrinking global net exports of oil in recent years. He believes that any effect of the Mexican reforms will be relatively small and delayed several years. He related his views in a recent email:
Regarding their [Mexico's] offshore potential, it's going to take a long time to work out the agreements, drill some wells and put the wells on line. I wouldn't expect to see any meaningful contributions from joint venture offshore projects until some time after 2020. Regarding onshore, [that] production could come on line sooner, but the agreements have to be made, and the per-well production rates are vastly lower than offshore. Also, I suspect that the production sharing agreements are going to be something more or less equivalent to a 50% royalty (or worse), versus much more favorable terms in Texas [which would make investment in Texas more attractive to major oil companies versus investment in Mexico].
Brown, who manages a joint venture exploration program based in Ft. Worth, also noted that "Mexico is on track to approach zero net oil exports in about six years (around 2019)." He continually reminds those making rosy predictions about oil exports for any exporting country that those countries tend to grow as oil revenues increase which means their thirst for oil also grows. That can leave less and less oil available over time for export. If the country's production is in decline, as has been the case with Mexico, exports decrease much faster than production on a percentage basis if domestic consumption grows in the face of declining production--a sort of pincer movement on oil exports.
It's possible that Mexico's production may grow somewhat as a result of the country's reforms. But, it is foolish to expect too much given what we've seen in Brazil to date. And, it is important to remember that production from currently producing Mexican wells is declining continuously making it necessary to drill a lot of wells just to maintain current production let alone increase it.
Anyone looking for oil exports or production from Mexico to reach their previous high marks would be wise to plan for a less than salutary result.
Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.