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Tapping Into Latin America’s Oil

On October 21, Indian oil and gas firm ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) was among 11 foreign companies in Rio de Janiero to bid for Brazil’s latest oil find, the Libra oil field.

The winning consortium was made up of a Sino-European mix of four companies, with Brazil’s Petrobras holding the majority stake. Although OVL didn’t make the final cut, its presence in the bidding process points to India’s growing energy equation with Latin America, as does the recent success of Indian oil majors in acquiring large contracts in Latin America.

Eight Indian companies—OVL, Reliance Industries, Essar Oil, BPCL, Oil India, Videocon Industries, Assam Company, and Indian Oil Corporation—are part of 12 joint ventures in Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Cuba, and Peru. Their approach is pragmatic: invest substantial capital with state-run oil companies and use local expertise.

In Venezuela and Brazil, the national oil companies—PDVSA and Petrobras, respectively—get their governments’ support in procuring funding and project clearances, which further facilitates the joint ventures. As a result of the enhanced trade in oil from these countries to refineries at home, India’s total oil imports from Latin America increased from 4.5 percent in 2003 to 11 percent in 2012-13.

This marks a diversification in India’s energy imports policy. The reasons for the shift are two-fold: first, the drop in oil imports from Iran since 2011 has left a large gap to fill. Latin American countries like Venezuela have picked up the slack; its oil exports to India increased from $5 billion in 2010-11 to $14 billion in 2012-13.

Second, India is trying to reduce its dependence on oil from West Asian countries, given the region’s growing instability and a potential spill-over of violence from Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Iraq into the Persian Gulf—the biggest source of oil for India.

Although the oil reserves in Central Asia may be another viable alternative due to the region’s proximity to India, the energy race there is dominated by Russian, Chinese and American conglomerates. In contrast, competition in Latin America is moderate. The United States, a long-established player in the region, is now less dependent on Latin American countries for petroleum due to the discovery of large shale gas reserves in the U.S.

The U.S.’s Hunt Oil Ltd-led liquid natural gas (LNG) project in Peru illustrates a change over the last decade in the country’s energy policies in Latin America. The U.S. is no longer as dependent as it was on foreign sources for oil, and U.S. companies engaged in oil and gas projects in Latin America can sell a majority of their oil to markets within Latin America and even Asia. Operations on the Peru LNG project began in 2003 and production began in 2010; Mexico soon won a contract to receive 70 percent of the LNG output, and the consortium led by Hunt Oil looked at Asia for the remaining 30 percent. By the end of 2010, India’s Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation Ltd (GSPC) took advantage of the opportunity and signed a short-term deal for 10 shipments (with roughly 150,000 cubic meters of gas per shipment) of LNG from Peru.

India’s trade and investments across all sectors in Latin America may be overshadowed by the large Chinese presence—trade between China and Latin American countries is six times the trade between India and Latin America—but there is little or no conflict of interest between the Indian and Chinese companies in the region. For example, both work with Venezuelan national oil company PDVSA. In Colombia, India’s OVL and China’s Sinopec have jointly invested more than $1 billion to form Mansarovar Energy Colombia, which has a 24 percent market share in the country’s heavy crude sector.

Now, a new dimension has been added to these economic exchanges: increased political will. There have been a number of visits—some of them first-time visits—between Indian heads of state, foreign ministers and commerce ministers and those of every major Latin America country in the last two years, including Brazil, Venezuela, Chile, Peru, Argentina, Cuba, Colombia, and Mexico.

This has been most apparent with Venezuela, India’s largest trade partner in Latin America. Over the last month, Rafael Ramírez, president of Venezuela’s PDVSA, has visited India and representatives of eight Indian companies, and attended the first Indo-Venezuelan Hydrocarbon Business Roundtable on October 7-9. Nine memorandums of understanding (MoUs) were signed at the roundtable, including for new joint ventures, long-term contracts to supply oil and the construction of a gas plant in Venezuela. Both countries also plan to diversify bilateral trade: Venezuela is keen to export oil to non-U.S. markets and seeks sources for long-term supply; India wants to lessen its dependence on the Gulf countries (which constitute 66 percent of oil imports).

In 2013, Venezuela became India’s fourth largest source of oil imports after Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait. India has a 15-year contract to buy 400,000 barrels per day of oil from Venezuela and five Indian companies are part of joint ventures there. 

Latin America’s surplus energy production and discoveries in off-shore oil fields have increased the region’s role in the global oil industry. Within the next decade, the region could supply an estimated 15 to 20 percent of India’s total oil imports. However, with the deteriorating economy of Venezuela, India must continue to invest in Brazil and Colombia—as well as in Mexico, which has opened up its energy sector—to maintain a diverse energy basket.

*Hari Seshasayee specializes in Latin American studies and India-Latin America relations and currently works with the Confederation of Indian Industry. He can be reached at harisesh@alumni.stanford.edu.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: India, energy, Brazil, Peru, Venezuela

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