Colombia weighs oil sector options

Updated: 2014-12-22 04:52

By PAUL WELITZKIN in New York(China Daily Latin America)

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After making progress in boosting production, Colombia's oil sector seems to have hit a rough patch and observers aren't sure when the country will be able to reverse the tide.

Writing for Platts Insight, the energy-industry publication from McGraw Hill's Platts unit, Robert Perkins said on Dec 14: "After years of major investments and output growth put Colombia back on the oil map, reserves are dwindling, investment is down and maintaining output growth is proving elusive."

All of this could have implications for China. After seeing crude sales to the US decline, Colombia has sharply increased its exports to China. But China, which needs energy sources to fuel its growing economy, has more options.

As of this year, Columbia had more than 2 billion barrels of proven oil reserves to rank fifth in South America. "But from 1993 to 2013, Colombia's oil reserve life has slumped from 19 to less than seven years, throwing a big question mark over the sustainability of its oil industry," Perkins wrote in his report.

Areas that may help Colombia change that dynamic are its offshore and shale assets. While s offshore looks promising, it seems to hold mostly natural gas, which brings lower prices than oil, according to Lisa Viscidi, energy, climate change and extractive industries program director for the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.

"The shale deposits have not been explored so there is little information available to determine how much oil and gas lies there," Viscidi said in an e-mail to China Daily. "The government didn't attract much interest in the shale blocks it offered earlier this year. Companies were reluctant to pick up those blocks because of this uncertainty about the resource, coupled with the environmental permitting delays and local opposition to drilling that have held up projects in other parts of the country."

As oil prices have crashed globally in the last month, investment will be even more of a challenge in a sector that requires huge amounts of capital to just explore for the resource. Perkins said Colombia has managed to hold its own in attracting outside investment.

"Colombia has a fairly attractive and open regime for oil companies but more work on stripping out red tape is still being called for. The country still has to compete for oil/gas investment like anywhere else and there are the familiar issues such as security concerns and community unrest," he told China Daily.

Viscidi said over the past 10 years, Colombia had great success in attracting foreign investment due to its stable political regime and contract sanctity. "In recent years, it has struggled more because of environmental permitting delays and local communities protesting against drilling their areas," she said.

And what role can China play in both investment and as a customer for Colombian energy resources? According to a Reuters report, Colombian oil sales in 2013 to China soared 73 percent to $3.84 billion. Exports to India more than doubled to $2.71 billion and shipments to Italy, Switzerland and the UK also increased.

"Unlike several other South American countries like Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil, China does not play a big role in Colombia's oil sector. Because Colombia's oil fields are generally much smaller, it tends to attract small upstream companies rather than the Chinese state oil companies that are looking for a bigger resource base," said Viscidi.

Perkins said Colombia has signed investment deals with China in the past to export oil. "But the declining reserve life and lack of new finds and stagnation in production has complicated things. China's Sinopec already (has) upstream assets in Colombia so (it) has a foothold there, but in the end China wants cheap oil and will source anywhere, including Colombia. Colombia needs to find new markets as its exports to the US are shrinking due to US shale oil," he added.