By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*
The sharp drop in global oil prices – caused by a combination of a slowing Chinese economy hurting commodities sales and efforts by Saudi Arabia to retain market share – has both downsides and advantages for Latin America and the Caribbean. By keeping production levels steady, despite decreased demand, so that a barrel of crude remains below US$40, the Saudis’ hope is to put U.S. shale oil producers and Canadian tar sands producers out of business. The drop in oil prices has had a varied impact elsewhere in the Americas:
- The effect in Venezuela, already reeling from over a decade of economic mismanagement, has been catastrophic. The ripple effect is being felt in those Caribbean and Central American countries that grew to depend on PetroCaribe’s generous repayment terms for oil imports that allowed savings to be used for other needs. In 2015, for example, this alternative funding mechanism in Belize was slashed in half from the previous year. The threat of interest rate hikes on money that must eventually be repaid for oil imports also pushed the Dominican Republic and Jamaica to use funds raised on international capital markets to reduce their debt overhang with Venezuela. (For those weening themselves off PetroCaribe dependency, however, the lower prices are a silver lining.)
- Low oil prices have also knocked the wind out of Mexico’s heady plans to overhaul its petroleum sector by encouraging more domestic and foreign private-sector investment.
- In South America, the decline has undermined Rafael Correa’s popularity in Ecuador because the government has been forced to implement austerity measures. The Colombian state petroleum company, Ecopetrol, will likely have to declare a loss for 2015, the first time since the public trading of its shares began nine years ago. In Brazil, heavily indebted Petrobras has seen share prices plummet 90 percent since 2008, although that is as much the result of the company being at the center of a massive corruption scandal that has discredited the country’s political class.
- On the other hand, lower petroleum prices have benefitted net energy importers such as Chile, Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
The one major oil producer in the Americas that has not cut back on production and new investment is Argentina – in part because consumers are subsidizing production and investment by the state petroleum firm YPF, which was renationalized in 2012 and now dominates domestic end sales of petroleum products. Prices at the pump remain well above real market values. While successive Argentine governments froze energy prices following the 2001-02 implosion of the Argentine economy, this time policy is keeping some energy prices high. This encourages conservation and efficiency and spurs greater use of renewable alternatives, but it becomes unsustainable during a prolonged dip because it will, among other things, make the country’s manufacturers uncompetitive. The Argentine example underscores that predictions of a pendulum shift in Latin America in favor of private-sector investment in the hydrocarbons sector over state oil production are still premature.
The lower prices do not appear likely to harm the region’s continuing substitution of natural gas for coal and oil as a transitional fossil fuel to greener sources of energy. Natural gas prices remain at their lowest levels in over a decade, and the expansion of liquefied natural gas plants allows for easier transport of natural gas to markets around the world. They are also unlikely to dent the global shift to greater reliance on renewable energy resources driven by the international consensus that climate change can no longer be ignored and something must be done to address it. At the UN climate change talks in Paris last December, for example, countries agreed to keep temperature increases “well below” 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels and made a specific commitment “to pursue efforts” to achieve the much more ambitious target of limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees centigrade. The year 2015 was the second consecutive year in which energy-related carbon emissions remained flat in spite of 3 percent economic growth in both years.
March 24, 2016
*The author is the President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. He chaired the Western Hemisphere Area Studies program at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute between July 2011 and November 2015.