Mexico City – Pemex is flailing.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s much-vaunted energy reforms – which ended the state-owned oil giant’s seven-decade monopoly over the oil and gas sector – have not provided the shot in the arm the company needed to climb out of an 11-year slump.
On the contrary: the final quarter of 2015 saw the company post losses of $10.1 billion, the worst in its 75-year history.
God knows what’s going to happen to Pemex at this point: They owe more than they’re worth right now. Without deep cuts, the company has no future.
- Dwight Dyer, energy editor at Mexico City’s El Daily Post
Those aren’t the only daunting numbers facing Pemex, which was formed in 1938 when Mexico nationalized the holdings of all oil companies. But the company's production has dropped for 11 straight years now, while gross income plummeted more than 80 percent last year.
Beyond that, the government’s current drive toward austerity is expected to push down output by a further 100,000 barrels over the course of 2016, mainly because meaning that deep water exploration projects – which are Pemex’s big bet for long-term viability – are expected to be postponed.
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With a view to plugging the financial hole in Pemex – which brings in between a quarter and a third of Mexico’s annual tax revenue – Peña Nieto appointed a new company CEO, José Antonio González Anaya, a Harvard and MIT graduate with a penchant for cycling.
Three weeks into his tenure, González Anaya appears to have started his new post with confidence, dismissing Pemex’s issues as “short-term financial difficulties” in a conference call with investors in February and presenting $5.5 billion worth of budget cuts to the Pemex board on Friday.
“González Anaya's job is to define what Pemex 2.0 is going to look like,” Tim Samples, assistant professor at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, told Fox News Latino. "His predecessor [Emilio Lozano] was a reform CEO, steering the company through Peña Nieto's game-changing reforms. González Anaya has a more complicated job."
For one thing, he will have to brave some serious economic headwinds. Pemex’s initial projections for 2016 were based on oil prices of $50 per barrel. The current prices has been fluctuating between $25 and $35. Meanwhile, “adding injury to injury” as Samples put it, the peso lost 17 percent of its value against the dollar.
Which, if anything, is likely to buy González Anaya time.
“It’s not his fault that the oil market is performing so miserably across the board,” said Samples. “This would be like blaming him for the weather.”
One thing that is in González Anaya's control, however, is “cutting Pemex to the bone,” according to Dwight Dyer, energy editor at Mexico City’s El Daily Post and a former senior analyst at the global consulting firm, Control Risks.
That task, Dyer told FNL, may prove easier said than done.
Pemex’s workforce is “bloated and inefficient,” as Dyer notes. The company employs 153,085 staff in Mexico alone – more than double what Norway’s Statoil employs in 36 countries around the world.
Meanwhile, Pemex’s six refineries are operating at just over 60 percent capacity, and they have a checkered safety record to boot. Three Pemex workers died in fires last February alone, with another fire claiming seven lives last year took place in a Bay of Campeche facility.
“Gonzalez’s job is about helping Pemex muddle its way through a vale of tears,” Dyer said. “He’s essentially administering a bankrupt company. God knows what’s going to happen to Pemex at this point: They owe more than they’re worth right now. Without deep cuts, the company has no future.”
Both Dyer and Samples agree that foreign investment represents a degree of light at the end of the tunnel – albeit one that’s a long way off.
“We can’t judge the energy reforms too extensively in the short term, since many of the auctioned projects won’t bring a return for 10, 20, maybe even 30 years,” Samples said. “But one good indicator is that auctions are being held in an orderly way, attracting bids in a difficult price climate.”
For Dyer, that long-term hope is all that is keeping Pemex viable in the short term.
The litmus test will come at the end of this year, when the oil company is set to auction off deep-water oil blocs to private investors.
These so-called “farm-out” agreements – which will see Pemex hire private companies with better infrastructure to drill on its behalf – are necessary to extract an estimated 29-million-barrel oil bonanza lying beneath the seabed of the Gulf of Mexico.
In order to attract these investors, however, Pemex is going to need to become a leaner, more efficient machine.
"The potential worth of the country's deep-water reserves are essentially keeping Pemex afloat now," said Dyer. "To capitalize on that potential, González Anaya has to find a way to make the company more streamlined. Otherwise, when the deep-water auctions roll around on Dec. 5, Pemex may not be seen as a viable partner for farm-outs, meaning Mexico [will be] forced to sell its fields for much less than they’re worth."
Whatever positive results come from the energy reforms are likely to come too late to save Peña Nieto’s economic legacy – but the threat that the reforms themselves might be overturned by the next administration seems for now to have been averted.
“Peña Nieto’s already a lame duck,” said Dyer. “He won’t be able to deliver on his election promises. He got his reforms passed, and some of them have actually worked. The telecommunications industry, for instance, is already becoming more competitive. But if Peña Nieto was wise, he’d begin lowering expectations ahead of the next round of auctions, resisting the urge to oversell their potential to the electorate and instead focus on explaining why things didn’t work out as expected.”
But the rosiest of outcomes is entirely outside the control of either Mexico’s president or Pemex’s new chief.
Dyer said, “With a rise in international oil prices, things may start to look more promising.”
Tim MacGabhann is an Irish freelance journalist based in Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter: @TimMacGabhann