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If you spin a globe of our world, there are several countries you could point to where, despite the potential for uncovering vast new reserves of oil and natural gas, the sharp elbows employed by local officials render taking full advantage of the resulting economic opportunities questionable at best.
Chevron gets stung
In something of a surprise, Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) , the second-largest U.S.-based oil and gas producer, clearly has stumbled into a veritable hornets' nest in Brazil, a relative newcomer to the nations where Mother Nature saw fit to deposit vast quantities of crude oil. The stings the company has received in the process could make the world's oil companies think twice before dropping their bits into the South Atlantic off the Brazilian coast.
Chevron's dilemma relates to an absurd siege that continues to play out for the California-based giant in the South American country. As last November arrived, Chevron became mired in an oil-spill controversy involving its Frade field, located in about 3,700 feet of water in the Campos basin about 230 miles from Rio de Janeiro. And while the massive tragedy resulting from the blowout of BP's (NYSE: BP ) Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico nearly two years ago may cause the mere mention of an oil spill to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, Chevron's Brazilian incident -- which, like the BP tragedy, also involves offshore driller Transocean (NYSE: RIG ) -- is minuscule by comparison.
Whereas Chevron's spill was, in reality, a seep of the type that can result from natural forces, it involved the leaking of a maximum of 3,000 barrels. That's significantly less than 1% of the approximately 4.9 million barrels that gushed for months into the Gulf from BP's blowout. In Chevron's case, the company has owned up to having miscalculated the pressure involving the hydrocarbons in the Frade reservoir, admitted that Transocean was innocent of any wrongdoing in the accident, and sealed off its production from the field.
Not another one!
Beyond that, last week Chevron announced that a new seep had been noted in the field, although the company maintains that the oil from the second seep is chemically different from that of the first. The company estimates the amount of oil now being discharged to amount to less than a paltry barrel a day, essentially all of which is being captured by a subsea device specifically designed for such purposes.
Nevertheless, the events that have transpired offshore from Brazil, where Chevron holds about 700 million barrels of oil reserves and where it had intended to spend at least $2 billion to develop another promising asset, its Papa-Terra field, may have changed the game radically for all oil producers with an eye on the country's vast resources. This comes as Petrobras (NYSE: PBR ) , Brazil's state-run oil company and the holder of a 30% stake in the Frade field, has chalked up a trio of its own spills during the past few months.
But Chevron's relatively minor mishap has precipitated what clearly is an overreaction among Brazilian officials. Late last year, the country's National Petroleum Agency fined the company $27.7 million, maintaining that the company had used insufficient environmental procedures. But beyond that, and having slapped Chevron with a ban on further exploratory drilling, the country's federal prosecutors have filed a civil lawsuit seeking $11 billion from the combination of Chevron and Transocean.
Are they joking?
As if that weren't enough, however, in the face of what prosecutor Eduardo Santos de Oliveira has termed "criminal conduct," a dozen Chevron employees -- including George Buck, an American who oversees the company's Brazilian operations -- along with another five hands from Transocean, have been ordered not to leave Brazil. At the same time, the group is facing criminal charges that some believe could land them in a Brazilian hoosegow for at least a couple of years. As such, the intensity of their reactions makes it relatively easy to envision how Brazilian officials just might be meting out punishment that in the final analysis will claim their country and its economy as its primary victims.
After all, until as recently as 2007, Brazil was hardly a hotbed of energy activity. However, a spate of big discoveries off the country's coast has led to its being able to lay claim to fully a third of the world's subsequent major finds.
Those discoveries typically lie beneath water depths exceeding 5,000 feet, which cover salt layers thousands of feet thick. The combination renders accessing the oil that lies beneath the water and salt more than a little tricky and expensive. Thus far, the only solution to these double demands has been for Petrobras to look to the likes of Chevron, ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) , and Anadarko Petroleum for technical expertise and funding.
But Anadarko reportedly has 700,000 acres of its assets offshore from Brazil on the block. And it's entirely possible that other companies, having observed the over-the-top treatment that Chevron is receiving, will find it in their best interests to locate other deepwater plays to moisten their drill strings.
As for Chevron, I'm betting that with all that Brazil has at stake in overseeing the development of its Santos Basin, the strongly managed and technologically sophisticated company will weather its South American storm. And beyond that, its role as the virtual star of the show in developing huge Australian LNG projects, its role as the lone upstream player in Saudi Arabia, and its success in such major plays as Canada and the Gulf of Mexico, make Chevron a must for inclusion on Fools' watchlists.
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