from Energy Realpolitik and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Why Mexico’s Energy Reform Needs AMLO

Leftist front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) delivers a message after arriving at the third and final debate in Merida, Mexico June 12, 2018. (REUTERS/Lorenzo Hernandez)

June 20, 2018

Leftist front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) delivers a message after arriving at the third and final debate in Merida, Mexico June 12, 2018. (REUTERS/Lorenzo Hernandez)
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This is a guest post by David R. Mares, the Institute of the Americas chair for Inter-American Affairs and professor for political science at the University of California San Diego and the Baker Institute scholar for Latin American energy studies at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

Mexico’s energy reform has taken important first steps but to come to full fruition, several additional critical reforms remain to be designed and implemented, including another constitutional reform. The task of adopting and implementing new reforms is all the more difficult because not only did the government of Enrique Peña Nieto oversell the short-run benefits of the package of reforms, including energy, adopted at the beginning of his term but also his administration is linked with other, broader political failures, including corruption scandals and the mishandling of the economy. Peña Nieto’s missteps have wrested credibility from the political system and make it unlikely that a mainstream candidate could put together a governing coalition with sufficient political support to adopt the next stage in Mexico’s energy reform. That’s why a political outsider would be more uniquely positioned to further energy reform, should that be a credible political choice. Once Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) wins the election, he could have the credibility to put together a coalition with the support of the Mexican people that could justify the next stage in Mexico’s energy reform.  Whether he will do so remains an open question, but the next stage of the energy reform is unlikely to happen without him.

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Stage III of the Mexican Energy Reform

The first stage of the energy reform in Mexico was President Calderon’s 2008 reform that was designed to strengthen Pemex without breaking Pemex’s monopoly position. After a fractious national debate, the reform was adopted because it was promised it would make Pemex an effective national oil company. The failure of that reform led to stage two in Mexico’s energy reform, which was the constitutional reform instituted under President Peña Nieto. This constitutional reform was intended to make Mexico’s energy sector more efficient and able to meet the power, gas and oil needs of a growing economy, with a small nod to generating more clean energy. By design, it allowed Pemex to lead the process by permitting the national oil company (NOC) to select the best properties for its own exploitation in Round Zero before opening the bidding process to companies other than Pemex.

The first auctions for oil and gas blocks did not go well, partly due to falling oil prices and partly because terms reflected Mexico’s relative inexperience with auctions. However, more recent auctions have gone extremely well. Foreign capital has committed to investment over the life of their contracts of almost $150 billion, and some new fields have already been discovered. Winning bids including seventy-three companies from twenty countries attest to the interest in Mexico’s energy future. There’s been less success in developing the infrastructure to get new energy and more imported energy to end users and the government has not solved the theft from Pemex oil pipelines or Pemex’s CAPEX and its pension liabilities.

Given Pemex’s dominant position, the company needs to develop a better business model. To generate capital, it needs to take the steps taken in Brazil, Colombia, authorized in Peru, and maintained in Argentina after the renationalization of YPF: privatize some stock in the NOC. The sale of the stock would require a constitutional amendment, but would not put Pemex in the hands of private equity holders and its stock price would provide a basis for evaluating how well Pemex was reforming. The government and Pemex have already modified the weight of the Petroleum Workers’ Union on Pemex’s governing structure and balance sheet, but the pension obligations that were made with Pemex need to be restructured and funded through other mechanisms.

Building a New Political Coalition for Energy Reform

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While these necessary reforms have a technocratic nature, they cannot be adopted by technocrats or political leaders by simple decree. The first two stages of Mexico’s energy reforms rested on the backs of strong political coalitions behind them. The next stage will also require a political coalition. Unfortunately, the political system that generated the first two reforms has been discredited in the eyes of the Mexican people by actions both within and outside the energy sector. The clearest sign of disappointment with the process is AMLO’s widely expected victory in a few weeks. AMLO represents a new political coalition. López Obrador will need to convince that new coalition that when his government continues to attract private capital into Mexico’s energy sector, the benefits of a strong and efficient energy sector will benefit the Mexican people and not go into the hands of corrupt officials or the economic elite. His restructuring of Pemex needs to emphasize that the company is a means to promote the country’s interests in a rejuvenated energy sector, not to benefit oil workers and the PRI party at the expense of Mexican society.

So What Will AMLO Do?

The three pillars of the Mexican economy over the past decades have been manufactured exports under NAFTA, remittances from Mexican migrants to the United States, and oil exports. AMLO has an ambitious agenda for generating public goods as well as rewarding the groups who supported his victory. The income earned from manufactured exports under NAFTA will likely stagnate, if not actually decrease, even if NAFTA is successively renegotiated, and could decrease more substantially if NAFTA is terminated. Remittances have probably peaked because Mexico’s demographics and growing economy result in fewer Mexicans going to the United States for work; U.S. policy will likely enhance that decline. Oil exports have fallen as reserves and production have been falling, and it will take up to ten years for significant new reserves to be discovered and produced. Those efforts will require companies following through on their promised investments as well as new investment.  AMLO will need an energy sector that generates revenue during his six-year term and credibly paves the way for greater future benefits that will be distributed to the Mexican people. Such nationalist messages could strengthen his political coalition as he implements his reforms of what has become an illegitimate political system.

AMLO’s political discourse radicalized when López Obrador and half the Mexico electorate believed that he had been deprived of previous presidential election victories in the extremely close and controversial election in 2006 and a close second in 2012. But when López Obrador was mayor of Mexico City from 2000-2005 he was pragmatic, worked with the private sector, and was perceived as an effective leader. Analysts say lack of technology and funds required to modernize Mexico’s oil sector could lead to an additional output plunge of 700,000 b/d by 2020, unless the next administration takes some definitive action. Output is expected to rebound slightly this year and is currently averaging 1.9 million b/d, down roughly 5 to 10 percent from 2017. Pemex is targeting 1.95 million b/d for 2018. Pemex’s natural gas production has also been declining, and fuel theft has plagued the country’s refining sector.

López Obrador has said he will not seek a constitutional change to reverse the 2014 energy reform and will respect the legitimate contracts signed under the reform. There is hope that AMLO can be like President Lenín Moreno of Ecuador and implement reforms from the left with a significant role for the private sector. Will AMLO take this path? We won’t know until he begins to govern, but the Mexican economy and the Mexican people need him to enact reforms that allow Mexico to reap the benefits produced by their energy sector.

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