How are the Americas Faring in an Era of Lower Oil Prices?

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Gas Station Guatemala

Photo Credit: Josué Goge / Flickr / Creative Commons

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.

The Impact of Falling Oil Prices on the Western Hemisphere

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

L.C. Nøttaasen / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

L.C. Nøttaasen / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

The sharp drop in the benchmark Brent crude price of oil from just under US$115 per barrel in June 2014 to its current perch around US$50 has important ramifications for the Western Hemisphere.  For Venezuela, which earns some 95 percent of its foreign exchange from petroleum exports, it is a potential disaster.  Underlying political tensions will be exacerbated if there is no money to continue funding social welfare programs or heavily subsidizing gasoline.  It probably also spells the end of PetroCaribe’s generous repayment holidays and what are in essence below-market interest loans for Caribbean and Central American nations.  Sharply lower oil prices also put at risk major energy projects such as the development of Brazil’s pre-salt reserves, which require a minimum price of $50 to $55 to be economically viable.  Equally tenuous are Argentine efforts to regain energy self-sufficiency by exploiting its vast shale oil and gas reserves and Mexican plans to attract foreign investors to participate in deep-water oil exploration and drilling.  The minimum price for a barrel of oil below which new investment projects in Canada’s oil sands are no longer attractive is around $65.  Shale oil producers in the United States are also being squeezed by low petroleum prices.

On the other hand, net energy importers such as Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay benefit from sharply lower oil prices.  Although being weaned off  PetroCaribe will be painful for the Caribbean and Central America in the short term, they will be able to seek oil at the lower prices elsewhere.  The pressure on the Obama administration to lift the ban on U.S. crude oil exports, in response to a glut of domestic shale oil production, could also redound in favor of the Caribbean and Central America by lowering international oil prices further through increased global supply.  Already, 2015 began with U.S. companies authorized to export an ultralight crude called condensate.

In hopes of rallying OPEC to stabilize oil prices, Venezuelan President Maduro last weekend rushed off to lobby Saudi Arabia, which just two months ago refused to decrease production in order to raise prices, but oil industry sources say there’s little chance of a policy change.  Meanwhile, the environment may turn out to be among the biggest beneficiaries of lower oil prices.  Less investment in shale oil production reduces the risk of leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as well as decreases flaring.  Similarly, slowing down oil sands production in Alberta and Saskatchewan means that the very high levels of greenhouse gas emissions associated with extracting crude oil from bitumen (not to mention the negative impact on water resources) is diminished.  Although lower fossil fuel prices traditionally have undermined incentives to move to greater reliance on renewable and non-traditional energy resources, this may no longer be true.  For one thing many governments around the world are now embarked on ambitious efforts to reduce carbon emissions by, among other things, raising the costs associated with petroleum usage through cap and trade regimes that force companies to buy government-issued pollution permits.  Still others have enacted outright carbon taxes on utilities and large factories per metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions.  In addition, the heavy initial capital investment that was previously associated with things like wind, solar and geothermal power are falling.  For example, a combination of technological advances and Chinese overproduction have resulted in much lower prices for solar panels so that the cost of generation from a large photovoltaic solar plant is now almost 80 percent less than five years ago.  Geothermal energy may be the renewable that most benefits as drilling rigs idled by lower oil prices are now available at a lower cost for geothermal projects.  

*Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and teaches at the Villanova University School of Law.

January 13, 2015