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Brazil’s Oil Giant Faces New Pressures

Richard Sanders
Restoring the Crown Jewel of Brazilian Industry: A conversation with Pedro Parente, President and CEO of Petrobras, on the five-year plan to transform his company

On May 14, President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva dismissed the president of Petrobras, Brazil’s state-controlled oil and gas giant. The decision suggested a departure from the company’s recent focus on maximizing dividends for shareholders. Instead, Lula appears interested in transforming Petrobras into an instrument for state-led industrial development, harnessing the corporation’s vast resources and influence for economic growth.

Petrobras is crucial for Brazil and the global energy market, as Brazil ranks among the world’s top ten oil producers. It will not be easy to make everyone happy. The company will now face the challenge of satisfying Lula’s national development goals while meeting its own production targets, including by finding new oil deposits to build on its offshore success. In the meantime, it faces yet another challenge, as its oil exploration strategy has sparked conflict with environmentalists.

Lula replaced Petrobras President Jean Paul Prates, a former senator from his own Workers’ Party with considerable experience in energy management, with Magda Chambriard, an oil and gas industry veteran who served in Lula’s first administration. The announcement was triggered by Prates’s decision to issue an extraordinary dividend to shareholders that cost the company $4.3 billion, money that many in Lula’s administration would have preferred to see reinvested in Brazil.

A Return to Industrial Policy

The Brazilian state owns 37% of Petrobras shares, but the voting structure grants it majority control. Prates’s dismissal was not entirely unexpected; Lula had previously signaled a desire for Petrobras to pivot towards job-creating investments in areas like refinery construction and shipbuilding. Under the Jair Bolsonaro administration, Petrobras had partially disengaged from downstream operations. Prates had been prioritizing oil exploration and renewable energy.

Since Lula’s election, Petrobras has already reversed some Bolsonaro-era policies, including the planned sale of eight oil refineries. Instead, the company is looking to expand its capacity. Petrobras is also expected to increase its exposure to the petrochemical sector. Today, it controls 36% of Braskem, the world’s 18th-largest petrochemical company. The controlling shareholder, Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht (now known as Novonor), is trying to sell its shares, and Petrobras might end up increasing its stake.                                                                                                          

Finding Oil

Petrobras is a giant. It employs over 46,000 workers, has a market capitalization of $109 billion, and operates across the oil and gas industry, from fields to gas stations. Founded in 1953, it became a major international energy player after the discovery of oil deposits in the Atlantic off the coast of central Brazil in 2006. Known as “pre-salt” because they are found below layers of salt that make extraction difficult, the project languished for years. Strict local content requirements for inputs such as steel, and the insistence that Petrobras hold a majority share in any joint ventures to pump pre-salt oil, contributed to the delays. 

In 2016, however, those requirements were loosened and production ramped up. Brazil now produces 4.3 million barrels of oil per day, surpassing countries like Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. The Brazilian government predicts that by 2029, Brazil will produce 5.4 million barrels per day, making it the world’s fourth-largest producer.

But with its pre-salt fields maturing, Petrobras has its eye on offshore areas at the mouth of the Amazon River. Although this region is promising, environmentalists strongly object, pointing to dangers for mangrove swamps and coral reefs and warning that strong currents could exacerbate the effects of any oil spills. The issue is further complicated by Lula’s efforts to demonstrate strong environmental credentials, and by the influence of his environment minister, the activist Marina Silva. The COP28 UN climate conference last year called for a transition away from fossil fuels and Brazil will host the COP30 conference next year.

Regulators have granted limited permits for exploration, but the future of drilling by the Amazon is not clear. Concerns about the potential impacts on Indigenous communities are another source of uncertainty. Petrobras is resisting a requirement to study the potential impact on Indigenous populations and Lula has pushed for the oil exploration to move forward. But that could require both legal reforms and perhaps personnel changes in Brazil’s environmental bureaucracy.

Political Decision-Making

As Petrobras becomes more entangled in the government’s industrial policy, critics fear it will start making decisions based on Lula’s short-term political interests. The last government offers a cautionary tale. While Bolsonaro generally favored a market-oriented strategy, he pressured Petrobras to lower gasoline prices as his re-election race neared, even firing the Petrobras head following a politically damaging price hike.

Increased political involvement in Petrobras also raises concerns about a potential repeat of the corruption that plagued the company the last time Lula was in office and during the administration of his successor, Dilma Rousseff. During that period, Petrobras paid enormous kickbacks for goods and services, enriching politicians, political parties, and Petrobras executives. Though the company has since tightened internal controls, a return to its scandal-ridden era would be disastrous for everyone, from minority private shareholders to Brazilian tax payers.

It’s Not Just Petrobras

The changes at Petrobras are mirrored by government efforts to reverse, or at least limit, the impact of privatizations in other sectors. Lula has expressed unhappiness over the partial privatization of power generation and transmission firm Eletrobras and through legal action, he has sought to increase the voting rights of the state, a minority shareholder. At minerals producer Vale, where the state now owns just 9% of shares, Lula has urged the company to name as its president Guido Mantega, who served as finance minister during Lula’s first term in office. Finally, Lula has repeatedly criticized Roberto Campos, the orthodox economist who leads the Central Bank, and pressed for lower interest rates. Campos’s term expires in December, and it is expected that his successor will be more in tune with Lula’s preferences.

 Nevertheless, it is not clear how far Lula will go in reasserting state control over Brazil’s economy. After all, disregarding the interests of minority shareholders in Petrobras could send dangerous signals, depressing the value of Petrobras stock and discouraging investment in other sectors. Similarly, Lula will have to balance his interest in oil exploration at the mouth of the Amazon River with his environmental commitments. Either way, a significant reversal of recent privatizations would require funding and support from Congress, where his party does not enjoy a majority and must negotiate with conservative parties that remain skeptical about Lula’s statist economic strategy.

About the Author

Richard Sanders

Richard Sanders

Global Fellow;
Former member of the Senior Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State
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Brazil Institute

The Brazil Institute—the only country-specific policy institution focused on Brazil in Washington—works to foster understanding of Brazil’s complex reality and to support more consequential relations between Brazilian and US institutions in all sectors. The Brazil Institute plays this role by producing independent research and programs that bridge the gap between scholarship and policy, and by serving as a crossroads for leading policymakers, scholars and private sector representatives who are committed to addressing Brazil’s challenges and opportunities.  Read more