Brazil's energy learning curve

Sept. 11, 2000
Brazil's phases of progress along the energy learning curve have been brief but steep.

Brazil's phases of progress along the energy learning curve have been brief but steep.

While that nation this year celebrates the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Portuguese navigator Pedro Alvares Cabral on the coast of Bahia, the vintage of its modern energy era is much newer than many of its neighbors in Latin America.

It has been a short span of time between Brazil's energy sector dominance by the most rudimentary energy source and its present-day role as one of leading technological innovators in the petroleum industry-specifically, the pioneering deepwater work of state-owned Petroleo Brasileiro SA.

Brazil's energy history

In a two-part series written for Petrobras Magazine, Em

What is evident from the first part of the series is that not a whole lot changed in Brazil in terms of energy the first 400 years or so. Although Brazil had constructed some world-class hydroelectric plants early in the century, it more or less skipped the Coal Age, because its massive industrialization stage came much later than that of other nations, La Rovere concludes.

Long after the Petroleum Era was well under way in the early decades of the 20th century, while other Latin America countries such as Venezuela and Mexico were major oil producers and exporters, Brazil still had no commercial hydrocarbons. The few wells drilled in search of oil in the country around the turn of the century were all unsuccessful.

Brazil had to import gasoline and kerosine to fuel the cars and lamps it also was importing.

First commercial oil find

The worldwide lack of oil made evident by the mechanized war machine that arrived with World War I spawned a renewed effort to search for oil in Brazil. During 1919-33, the Geological and Mining Services of Brazil conducted seismic surveys and drilled 63 wells, mostly in the coastal states. Again, success eluded the Brazilians.

The agency was restructured and renamed; exploration continued under the banner of the National Departament of Mineral Production (DNPM). On Jan. 21, 1939, DNPM brought in the first successful commercial oil well in Brazil, at the town of Lobato in Bahia state.

A year later, firewood still accounted for about 75% of the total energy consumed in Brazil. This reflected the largely rural nature of Brazilian society at the time, La Rovere notes.

By this time, Mexico and Venezuela had already taken turns decades earlier as the world's leading supplier of oil.

Sixty years later, Brazil is still importing oil and gas to meet its energy needs, but its rate of oil production growth is among the world's highest year to year. Among the countries of the world that produced more than 1 million b/d in 1999, Brazil's year-to-year oil production increase of 13.8% was second only to Iraq-which is rebuilding, under United Nations auspices, a war-ravaged productive capacity that had been 4.5 million b/d in 1990.

Brazil's track record offshore is even briefer. While it had a few nearshore commercial finds during the nearly 4 decades that had elapsed since the Lobato strike, the first significant offshore production in more than 100 m of water did not start up until 1977, at Enchova, in the Campos basin. It took only 8 more years for Petrobras to log its first deepwater world record by putting on line the RJS-284 well at a water depth of 383 m.

Since then, scarcely a year has gone by without Petrobras posting more deepwater records, and the company continues to garner accolades at industry conferences for its deepwater technological innovations. An article by Production Editor Guntis Moritis assesses the state of deepwater technology off Brazil, the second in a three-part OGJ Technology Insight series (OGJ, May 1, 2000, p. 81) and part of a special report on Brazil's rapidly evolving petroleum sector that begins on p. 78.

Post-monopoly challenge

Now comes the latest challenge on the Brazilian energy learning curve: attracting foreign investment to a petroleum sector dominated by a Petrobras monopoly until a scant few years ago.

Since the monopoly ended, the newly created National Petroleum Agency (ANP) has moved quickly and aggressively to ensure a level playing field for foreign investment. Two successful exploration and production bidding rounds have already been conducted, and a third is being prepared. And far from being obstructionist, as many outsiders had feared, Petrobras has also moved quickly to forge a number of E&P partnerships with foreign companies while repositioning itself as a multinational player.

Although it came late to the petroleum game, Brazil continues to prove itself to be a quick study.