Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto seems to be a man on a mission. Since his term started in July 2012, he has worked towards weeding out the inefficiencies and monopolies plaguing several sectors in Mexico and has received much appreciation for that. But this time, has he gone too far? With Pemex being Mexico’s much-guarded jewel, the attempt to bring in private investment seems much more ambitious than the previously introduced overhaul in the labor laws and telecom sectors.
President Enrique Peña Nieto took a bold step in June 2013 by reforming the country’s quasi-monopolistic telecom sector, voicing his seriousness about bringing real changes to Mexico’s economy by tackling inefficiencies and welcoming foreign investment. While the results of the telecom reforms remain yet to be seen, he has moved to an even more ambitious project – to allow foreign investors to enter Mexico’s energy sector, which has been closed to private participation since 1938.
Pemex, which is the world’s 10th largest oil producer, has been a government monopoly for over 75 years. The country’s oil output has been falling since 2004, as a result of its inability to explore unconventional (deeper) sources driven by lack of investment and outdated technology. It is expected that if further exploration is not undertaken, Mexico will become a net energy importer.
To combat this, the president sent a bill to congress that aims to end the state’s 75-year old monopoly over the energy sector. According to the proposed bill, private oil exploration companies would gain access to the Mexican oil reserves under profit-sharing contracts for upstream oil and gas development (exploration and production).The bill also cover reforms regarding the restructuring of Pemex to make it more transparent and accountable.
The bill also encompasses reforms in the electricity market, wherein it looks to allow private participation in electricity generation, while maintaining transmission and distribution under state control. While few amendments to partially allow private participation in the electricity sector have been introduced in the past, they have left much to be desired. The current amendments only allow private companies to generate or import electricity for self-supply or to undertake cogeneration. In addition, Independent Power Producers that produce less than 30 MW of electricity and exclusively sell to the state-owned Comision Federal de Electricidad (CFE) or export to other countries are allowed to generate electricity under the existing amendments. As against the state-owned CFE choosing the players from which it would like to purchase electricity, these reforms would boost competitiveness in the sector by establishing an independent system wherein power generator participation would be decided based on lowest generation costs.
These reforms are expected to boost investments in the oil sector by about US$10 billion per annum. Further, an influx of investments is expected to help Pemex offset its current US$60 billion debt. In addition, they are also expected to bring down electricity prices in the country (which are 25% higher than that in the USA), boost employment, and strengthen the participation of renewable energy in the energy mix primarily underpinned by private participation in electricity generation.
While these reforms spell out immense benefits for Mexico’s economy, their implementation and outcome are a different story altogether. The Mexican population that applauded and supported the government through the education and telecom reforms, is now much less convinced regarding this arm of reforms. Mexicans have for long considered Pemex to be symbol of their national independence and the oil found beneath Mexico’s soil and water, a part of their national heritage. Moreover, March 18th – the day when president Lazaro Cardenas nationalized the country’s oil industry in 1938 is celebrated proudly as a national holiday. Unlike the case of the previous successful reforms, the government faces much opposition from the leftist groups. However, with full support for the reforms from Peña Nieto’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) parties, which control more than two-third seats in congress, there are strong chances of this proposed law becoming a reality.
The bill also falls short from the point of view of leading global oil exploration companies. While the reforms give foreign companies access to extract and exploit oil, share risks and profits, they would not be able to have a share in the resources. This makes the Mexican agreements far less lucrative for large oil players when compared with proposals offered by neighboring oil-producing countries, such as Brazil and Columbia, which allow the producers to own a certain amount of oil in their books. Thus, although leading oil companies, including Shell, Chevron, BP, and Exxon Mobil have welcomed the wave of reforms in Mexico, their participation will largely depend on the nature and attractiveness of the final profit-sharing agreements.
Therefore, while these reforms look at altering history, it remains extremely premature to predict their outcome. These reforms run the risk of offering ‘too much’ from the eyes of the Mexican public or ‘too little’ from the point of view of resource-hungry energy companies and can only be a success if they manage to find the perfect balance between both the stakeholders. Thus, the key question that remains is not regarding the approval of reforms, but if these reforms will actually manage to stir foreign investment into the Mexican oil sector.