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Amlo and the realities of Mexico's oil reform

The Mexican president-elect needs a strong oil and gas sector to fund a promised social transformation

The investor-friendly tone Mexican president-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, widely known as Amlo, struck in the run-up to his landslide victory on 1 July is fueling confidence he will tweak rather than dismantle the energy reforms that are enticing international oil companies to the country.

Prospects of an Amlo presidency had stirred concerns among investors for months ahead of the votehe's the first leftist Mexican president since the 1930s, and has forged an anti-elitist platform calling for a reordering of the political landscape. And yet the peso gained more than 2% against the US dollar in the hours after the result.

"This can be a presidency ruled by reason and legality," Ixchel Castro, manager of Latin American oils and refining markets research with Wood Mackenzie, tells Petroleum Economist, while pointing to the currency market's reaction and the links he's built with Mexican business elites. "There may be change in the emphasis of the energy reforms, but we see a reversal as highly unlikely".

Launched by outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2013, the reforms ended Pemex's 75-year monopoly over the energy sector. So far, auctions in January and March jointly lured at least $100bn in oil exploration investment commitments from more than 70 different firmsuseful revenue for a president who has promised sweeping social changes to tackle crime, corruption and poverty.

Amlo made opposition to the reforms a bedrock of his failed 2013 presidential bid, and told a rally just four months ago that he would never allow Mexican crude to return to the hands of foreigners. But a reversal in tack since has seen his top business adviser and nominee for chief of staff, Alfonso Romo, lead a pro-business public relations drive towards international investors.

Romo told Reuters on 25 June that there could be more auctions of oil drilling rights, as long as a review of contracts that have already been awarded to private companies showed no problems. "We will revise them and everything good will remain," he said, noting that Amlo had said this directly to investors in New York.

But it's not expected to be all smooth sailing for foreign oil investment under Amlo's watch. Uncertainty over the long-term goals of his populist agenda will likely continue to unnerve companies looking to establish a steady pipeline of projects.

"Amlo will likely enjoy the benefits from the existing contracts that have been awarded, especially in terms of oil barrels produced, fiscal revenue received and jobs created. By the third year of his administration he can claim that Mexico is producing more oil under his presidency," Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre wrote in an e-mail.

"But he will be reluctant to continue the bidding rounds. The one possible exception that I see would be in deep waters and in farm-outs from Pemex."

Mexico plans to auction 37 onshore areas and nine in the shale gas-rich Burgos Basin on 27 September, as well as the farm-out of seven onshore areas with Pemex on 31 October.

Amlo's approach to a planned re-shaping of Pemex is seen as the next critical indicator of his eventual intentions on the country's energy direction.

While the president has pledged to resurrect Pemex into a strong national oil company through cost-cutting, this comes amid a significant decline in domestic energy productionfrom 3.4m barrels of oil a day in 2004 to 1.9m b/d in 2018.

"Pemex must be forced to compete in order to become stronger," said Wood. "If the reform process is stopped, Pemex would gain from a strengthening of its position in the short-term. But in the long term its competitiveness and productivity could be severely damaged."

Join us as we return to Mexico City for the 3rd annual Petroleum Economist Energy Strategy Forum. Be part of top-down analysis and discussion around these energy reforms, what to expect as a result of the recent election result plus lots of other advice and insight into new opportunities in the Mexican energy sector. Apply for your complimentary spot here.

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