Petrobras woes make Brazil look to US, India for fuel

Written by Reuters | Rio de Janeiro | Updated: Jan 25 2014, 02:44am hrs
DieselBrazil imported some 530,000 barrels per day (bpd) of refined fuels through November 30.
In October 2007, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, then chairwoman of state-run petroleum company Petrobras, proudly predicted that giant new offshore oil fields would usher in an age of Brazilian energy independence.

Six years on, the opposite has occurred. Rousseff's push to develop offshore crude, her fuel-price controls and other energy policies have hobbled the country's refining sector, robbing it of funds for expansion. As a result, Petroleo Brasileiro, as Petrobras is formally known, has been forced to look abroad for fuel.

With a dozen decades-old domestic refineries running at what experts say are dangerously high rates to keep pace with expanding demand, Brazil's cars and trucks are increasingly powered by petrol and diesel refined in the US or India. Imports likely reached a record last year, meeting about a fifth of local needs.

And the situation is likely to worsen before it gets better. New refineries will only begin narrowing the import gap in 2015 and Rousseff's pricing policies and tougher maintenance rules mean significant new Brazilian refining capacity is at least three years away, probably more. All four refineries planned by Petrobras are years behind schedule or on hold.

Brazil has put an excessive focus on finding crude oil offshore and neglected refining, said Joo Castro Neves, Latin America analyst at the Eurasia Group in Washington. Brazil is now dependent on imports in a way it hasn't been for years.

Brazil does not lack for oil. Petrobras has found giant offshore reserves south of Rio de Janeiro and after two years of stagnation, its crude oil output is set to rise in 2014.

Despite this, a rising share of the nation's gasoline and diesel comes from shale oil in Texas, Oklahoma and the Dakotas that is refined on the US Gulf Coast. A rising portion also comes from India.

Instead of boosting Brazil's international power and influence by selling excess oil and fuel to what was a needy US, Rousseff has promoted policies that have, so far, raised Brazil's dependence on US supplies.

Brazil imported some 530,000 barrels per day (bpd) of refined fuels through November 30, nearly double the levels of 2007, the year Rousseff outlined her vision, according to Brazil's petroleum regulator, ANP. A third of imports were diesel, used to fuel the vast fleet of trucks that moves the bulk of goods in Brazil, a nation of 200 million and the world's seventh-largest economy.

Excluding exports of lower-value output such as asphalt and coke, net imports, or imports minus exports, last year likely surpassed those of 2011, the record year for net imports. Final 2013 totals are likely to get a boost from a refinery breakdown that forced large December purchases. Emergency breakdowns, or the maintenance to prevent them, will help keep imports strong.

The root of Brazil's problem is the government's refusal to let Petrobras raise domestic fuel prices in line with world prices. While the policy helps keep inflation in check, it also means petrol and diesel sell in Brazil at 20-25% below the cost of importing it, helping boost demand at the pump as well as Petrobras losses.

Petrobras' downstream supply division, which runs the company's refineries, tankers and distribution centres, has lost more than $12 billion in the last two years. Since Petrobras gets nearly three-quarters of its revenue from its supply unit, those losses threaten to cripple what is already one of the world's worst-performing oil companies.

That has led to rising debt. At 73% of equity, double the industry average, Petrobras' indebtedness is the highest among the world's major oil companies, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Chief executive Maria das Graas Foster has said paying for the company's $237-billion, five-year expansion plan is impossible without higher fuel prices, but she has been unable to persuade the government to allow substantial increases.

As a result, she has postponed refineries that were supposed to make Petrobras one of the world's three biggest refiners and a major fuels exporter by 2020.