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Business Week: Brazil, the New Oil Superpower

November 19, 2007, 12:01AM EST

State-run Petrobras’ “monstrous” new oil find has wide-ranging implications for the South American country, the oil majors, oil services providers, and beyond
by Joshua Schneyer

In a recent radio broadcast, Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said he’s convinced a “higher power” has taken a shining to Brazil. That, he said, might explain the providence of state-run oil company Petrobras (PBR), whose colossal new oil discovery could transform Brazil from a barely self-sufficient producer into a major crude exporter.

Petrobras announced Nov. 8 it has found between 5 billion and 8 billion barrels of light oil and gas at the Tupi field, 155 miles offshore southern Brazil in an area it shares with Britain’s BG Group and Portugal’s Galp Energy. Tupi is the world’s biggest oil find since a 12 billion-barrel Kazakh field was discovered in 2000, and the largest ever in deep waters. Perhaps more important, Petrobras believes Tupi may be Brazil’s first of several new “elephants,” an industry term for outsize fields of more than 1 billion barrels.

Initially, Tupi will produce about 100,000 barrels a day but may ramp up to as much as 1 million before 2020—more than the biggest U.S. field in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, says Hugo Repsold, Petrobras’ exploration and production strategy manager. “It’s monstrous,” says Matthew Shaw, a Latin America energy analyst at consultant Wood Mackenzie in London.

Blocking Private Companies

Given the discovery’s magnitude, Tupi already is changing how Brazilians think about their oil riches. It even tempts the kind of oil nationalism that has prompted Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to expropriate oil reserves and production infrastructure in Venezuela from oil majors ExxonMobil (XOM) and Chevron (CVX).

Indeed, a day after Petrobras announced the Tupi discovery, Brazil said it would remove 41 oil exploration blocks, located near Tupi, from an upcoming auction of potential oil fields open to private oil companies. Brazil still plans to offer 271 blocks for bidding, however, the government said it’s reanalyzing whether, and how, to share Brazil’s new oil riches with private companies, after a decade of relatively open concessions.

Brazilian oil regulator ANP says it’s drafting a new oil bill to present to congress that would change energy laws, perhaps limiting the role of private companies in Brazil’s subsalt. Additionally, Lula says Brazil should join OPEC once Petrobras begins oil output from Tupi, around 2011.

“This looks to have triggered a major debate about the role of state vs. private oil companies here,” says Sophie Aldebert, a director at Cambridge Energy Research Associates. “But Brazil is going to want to continue working with private companies.”

A Number of Challenges
Despite its size, the Tupi field poses significant engineering hurdles that will drive increased costs in tapping the field. Petrobras currently pumps 1.8 million barrels daily from its Brazilian fields and expects to boost its $112 billion in planned spending over the next five years to assume the Tupi project.

For one, the oil lies some 4.5 miles beneath the ocean’s surface. To reach it, Petrobras will have to run lines through 7,000 feet of water and then drill up to 17,000 feet through sand, rock, and a massive salt layer. A decade ago, geologists lacked the tools to glimpse beneath these salt layers, which can be more than a mile thick offshore Brazil. Today, with the help of data-crunching supercomputers, 3D imaging of ultradeep subsalt layers is illuminating billions of barrels of new oil. Geologists say the discoveries challenge one of the notions of the peak oil theory, which claims oil companies already have found nearly all of the world’s usable oil.

Petrobras is already one of a handful of big oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell (RDSB), BP (BP), Chevron, and ExxonMobil, with vast experience in deepwater drilling. Much of Brazil’s oil production is in deep water, but none yet comes from below the salt canopy.

The prized light crude Petrobras is finding may soon place Brazil “somewhere between Nigeria and Venezuela” in terms of proved reserves, Petrobras CEO José Sérgio Gabrielli said last week. Nigeria now holds around three times Brazil’s 12 billion barrels of proved oil and gas, while Venezuela has around seven times as much.

In one rough estimate, Petrobras’ Repsold says the company might need to drill 100 wells to develop Tupi. Shaw believes that means Tupi may cost between $50 billion and $100 billion to develop. A first well at Tupi cost $240 million and required two years to drill. “But we’re getting much faster,” Repsold says. Subsequent wells have cost around $60 million apiece and taken six months or less. Petrobras declined to estimate what it will cost to develop Tupi, saying more study and drilling are needed.

“Nobody ever produced oil at these depths,” says Cambridge’s Aldebert. “Petrobras will do everything in its power to be the first, but any major dip in world oil prices could hurt the plans.”

Good News for Oil Services

For now, with oil prices near record highs, the new discovery is good tidings for both Brazil and companies in Texas, headquarters for the industry that builds and leases offshore drilling rigs capable of reaching underneath massive offshore salt, to depths of 30,000 feet or more. Only about 40 such rigs exist in the world today, operated by Texas companies including Transocean (RIG) and its merger partner GlobalSantaFe (GSF), Noble Corp. (NE), Diamond Offshore Drilling (DO), and Pride International (PDE).

Before oil production starts at Tupi, companies that build and service massive offshore oil platforms—from shipyards in Singapore to Texas, and engineering firms and drilling experts such as France’s Technip or Houston-based Schlumberger (SLB) and Halliburton (HAL)—may also reap its rewards. If Tupi pumps roughly 1 million barrels a day, it may require five or six of the largest capacity offshore platforms available, which currently cost more than $1 billion apiece. Petrobras’ largest offshore platform can now handle 180,000 barrels per day.

Geologist Roberto Fainstein, whose seismic imaging work at oil-field services company Schlumberger helped Brazil to discover its massive new reserves, says the subsalt find will “lead to a rush in this kind of drilling worldwide.” Brazil’s discovery may quicken subsalt drilling in the Gulf of Mexico by oil majors and Mexico’s state-run oil giant Pemex. A salt layer offshore West African countries including Angola, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea is “virtually identical to Brazil’s,” Fainstein says, “so companies will race to begin drilling it.”

Avoiding the “Oil Curse”

Subsea salt layers are present in all three of the world’s biggest offshore oil areas: the Gulf of Mexico, West Africa, and Brazil. So far, subsalt oil production has been executed only in the Gulf of Mexico, near the Texas and Louisiana coast where companies including BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Anadarko Petroleum (APC) have all made significant discoveries.

In the last decade, private oil majors have invested several billion dollars to find oil offshore Brazil, but none have discovered reserves remotely as large as Tupi. “If Brazil takes its new oil off the table for international oil companies, it will send shock waves through the industry,” says Wood Mackenzie’s Shaw.

Contrary to the price-hawk position of Venezuelan President Chávez, who recently said oil-producing countries should try to “stabilize” oil prices near $100 a barrel, Lula said he hopes Brazil’s new oil will someday help to bring global oil prices down from their current levels, allowing poor countries to buy more of it.

“Brazilians are right to be euphoric,” says Peter Hakim, president of Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue. Because Brazil has discovered its new oil after the country’s economy has been largely diversified and industrialized, “Brazil can avoid the oil curse, the dependency on one resource that dominates countries like Nigeria and Venezuela.”

Schneyer is a special correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro. and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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