The (Surprising) Situation at PEMEX

The (Surprising) Situation at PEMEX

by | published July 1st, 2011

Getting out of Athens on Tuesday was an adventure, to say the least, for Marina and me.

Air traffic controllers joined the general strike, closing Greek air space, delaying flights for more than 10 hours, and rendering our connecting flights unusable.

For a while, however, our immediate concern was just making it to the airport.

Matters worsened quickly as the unrest spread. Street availability became problematic, with major routes cut off early by either police or protesters. Traffic congestion was heavy. Sporadic violence was already erupting. The strike cancelled all buses, trains, and the metro; everybody who needed to get somewhere had to use a car.

Finally made it back to Pittsburgh at 1 in the morning on Wednesday. Left again for the airport three hours later and arrived here in Mexico City the same day.

Occasionally, what awaits me on my travels is a happy surprise. Like what I found here.

I Didn't Expect This

Not the city itself, you understand. I've been to Mexico City before. It is a sprawling urban area built on a plateau more than 7,000 feet up in the mountains. You're aware of the altitude even when walking. The air is thinner. You get exhausted quicker.

And the pollution hardly helps you to catch your breath.

Smog sits in an almost permanent dome over the city, coloring everything. From my 30th-floor room in one of the impressive new hotels, I can see little of what is going on below. The windows are covered in a thick layer of residue that turns everything brown.

The continually growing population and expanding fleet of automobiles is making the situation worse.

Still, there is construction all over the place… and signs that economic recovery is beginning. The unemployment rate is barely above 5% – about half the U.S. level.

I am here in Mexico to give several workshops for executives at PEMEX – the national oil company – along with a series of advisory meetings with the company leadership.

PEMEX has experienced a rising crisis in organizational response to changing conditions. It has suffered significant declines in oil production, as well as a loss of associated gas (because of an inability to maintain field pressure). It has been falling behind international equivalents in the development and application of technology.

In short, there are fears of a major contraction in operations.

That wasn't the surprise, either…

In fact, declining PEMEX production is of great concern to the U.S., because Mexico is a primary source of our imported crude oil, often ranked second in monthly volume after Canada.

When we speak of Mexico providing oil, we mean PEMEX. It is the national oil company, controlled by the state, and has an absolute domestic market monopoly. It also has ongoing inefficiency problems, owing in large part to the fact that it has no competition.

To put that inefficiency in perspective: PEMEX produces roughly as much crude oil as Chevron Corp. (NYSE:CVX), yet it employs over three times as many employees.

That comes out to more than 144,000 workers – making it both the largest company in the country and the largest provider of tax revenue to the government.

Both prized as a national asset and subject to considerable political manipulation, the beginning of another Mexican presidential election cycle guarantees PEMEX will draw considerable attention.

Especially this time around, since the party in power will not retain the presidency, and the race is already becoming a free-for-all. A number of sitting cabinet ministers are candidates, more interested in raising campaign funds than making policy decisions. PEMEX, of course, becomes a primary target for each of the campaigns – both as a source of money and as an issue in campaign platforms.

Mexico threw out foreign (primarily American and French) oil c

ompanies in 1938 and nationalized the sector. By 1941, legislation was preventing outside companies from owning Mexican oil assets or controlling any part of the hydrocarbons.

As a result, there is no foreign investment in Mexican oil or gas production. Outsiders are limited to service contracts. They are unable to form partnerships or joint ventures establishing any property rights whatsoever.

That is becoming a major problem.

While Mexico has considerable offshore oil deposits in the Gulf of Mexico, PEMEX lacks both the technical and capital base to exploit them.

Quiet negotiations are underway between Washington and Mexico City on the joint development of deposits extending across the bilateral water border. But Mexican authorities privately express worries over being able to secure national interests in such projects if PEMEX cannot compete on the technical side.

Its jewel remains the giant offshore Cantarell Field, discovered by a fisherman in 1976 and, for decades, one of the largest oilfields in the world.

Unfortunately, production levels there have only recently shown indications of leveling off – after a disastrous decline of more than 60% in a few short years. Every conceivable problem cropped up, including a periphery well blowout years ago that flowed for more than a year and remains the worst spill on record (surpassing even the recent BP spill in the Gulf).

Some forward-looking PEMEX executives, along with a tough-minded minister, have now begun to change the environment. Over the past three years, they have revised laws, introduced accountability procedures, and compelled a huge company – where directors and unit heads did not even know each other – to look inward.

The object was to evaluate procedures and practices with a goal of developing sustainable production. They realize a need for outside investment, but the political impediments remain strong.

Recent revisions in contract law will allow some movement, especially in the area of tying provisions of international expertise and technology to production levels. For the first time in 70 years, outside companies have an incentive based on how much crude actually comes out of the ground.

However, PEMEX needs to address its own organizational problems first. Before they bring in foreign companies, therefore, they have decided to retain foreign advisors.

Like me.

And here is what I did not expect.

Mexico Could Become A Global Role Model

The last two days have been eye-opening.

I had anticipated hearing the same well-worn PEMEX line: “We are the state's company; they cannot allow us to fail.”

What I found is something else altogether.

Thousands of middle level and division managers have been given the green light. Their task is clear enough – to develop strategic plans to transform the company. That transformation will come from changing the way people's skills are used, combined with realistic approaches to projects and markets.

This time, most of the highest executives are on board and providing support. Government ministers in favor of change are working to marginalize those who are not.

This is a difficult and massive objective. But if PEMEX can begin to pull it off over the next several years, we may actually have a model for other national oil companies (NOCs) wrestling with the same situation.

Traditional ways of doing things are not working in a rapidly changing oil market. The PEMEX example could stand for the way NOCs should operate worldwide, lending a whole new meaning to the label “Made in Mexico.”

Next up, I'm off to Morocco for meetings of a different kind – policy creation for shale gas and shale oil, in a place where there's enough of it to change the energy picture in Europe. (See “Shale Gas Initiative Brings Morocco to My Doorstep,” December 13, 2010.)

The next Oil & Energy Investor will be coming to you from the edge of the Sahara…



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  1. R Jones
    July 1st, 2011 at 14:11 | #1


    Can you address the fracking issue one more time. Will the companies that employ this technique find it difficult to lease land where the water table may be affected? The movie ‘gasland’ showed how bad things could get when 600+ chemicals are used to get the oil out of the ground, especially when in close proximity to water resources. The French have revoked the licenses of a company – Toreador Resources in Paris because fracking would have been their preferred method of oil extraction. Their stock plummeted on the news. What companies use this method?
    Best Regards.
    R Jones

  2. July 1st, 2011 at 14:22 | #2

    While oil mining will be a continued source of oil for many years, it doesn’t solve the true short term issues and long term strategy of energy use doubling by 2050 and tripling by 2100. Check my paper
    “Political Rhetoric 2012”

  3. Calvin J. Smith
    July 1st, 2011 at 16:57 | #3

    A question for the good Doctor about Shale Fracking in France. The government there has recently passed a “no frack” law.
    Companies with drilling permits took a mean hit on the news. I would be interested in Dr. Moors take on the situation the local oil companies face in France. Thank you.
    Calvin J. Smith

  4. July 1st, 2011 at 18:39 | #4

    Thanks Kent,

    One question I am trying to merge my business with a renewable energy integrationg company in Mexico. What is your scope on this?

    respectfully submitted,


  5. bill noland
    July 1st, 2011 at 18:57 | #5

    can you inliten us on the largest oil field in kenya thank you

    July 1st, 2011 at 21:15 | #6

    Didcuss Advantage vs CIRCLE

  7. Michael Susko,Phd
    July 1st, 2011 at 22:50 | #7

    Very Adventurous and interesting in your travels. .

  8. norman cartmell
    July 2nd, 2011 at 05:43 | #8

    if morocco is any good why is transatlantic petroleum pulling out

  9. M. Beren
    July 2nd, 2011 at 09:08 | #9

    Re: PEMEX. Some sources indicate that the cartels now are exercising their influence on this company. If these sources are correct – and I most certainly trust that they are – you may wish to investigate for yourself. That just might modify any future recommendations you may offer. Just a suggestion. M.B.

  10. Rod
    July 2nd, 2011 at 10:46 | #10

    Having worked in the oilfield service sector in Mexico on and off since 2002, I have lived the inefficiencies of Pemex first hand.
    Pemex / Mexico will not be more than a passing joke of a nationalized monopoly until the corporate culture of corruption is weeded out (this is Mexico’s biggest problem, period, this will take a couple of generations) There were instances where Pemex management would phone our office from the Soriana grocery store demanding that we send some one over to pay for their purchases! contracts were given to Mexican national contractors that did not have the required equipment to even bid on the contracts, and the list goes on and on, it’s all based on the kick back and corruption. One has to understand the perspective of those in positions of middle management in a NOC, it does not matter how good of a job you do, you will not make any money, if you do too good of a job or try to change things, you are offending your boss who has done things this way for years, then you are outcast, so you find ways to move up the ladder and get into a position where you can receive money from kick backs from the contractors that are working for your company. Don’t expect any kind of revolution in Pemex’s inability to drill for oil, once the easy oil is gone (now) the norm for these government monopolies in 3rd world countries hopelessness, these bureaucracies make the US Federal Gov look like a well oiled machine! There is no technology owned by most oil companies,(there is some patent sharing in joint technology development between IOC’s & service companies, this is where the Oil company pays for the development of technology by using unproven technology in the field) Oil companies only have procedures of how to drill and employ technology that is owned by service companies, most of which are international giants. Pemex, Petrobras, Chevron, Shell all employ / contract services from the same international service companies, Baker / Haliburton / Schlumberger etc. who deploy and develop equipment globally to meet their clients needs. Hence the downfall of PDVSA in Venesuala, run the IOC’s out and screw over the international service companies and thus production is dropping at terminal velocity.

    Just a bit of how things are done in the oil field & who owns the technology for the average person who most likely knows very little about the inner relations of Oil Companies and the service companies.

  11. July 3rd, 2011 at 11:56 | #11

    I have lived in Mexico for decades and we have tried to obtain permits to own and operate power generation facilities then 10 years ago we gave up.
    The resistance to change is real and it will take a failed Greece state, a Greece default and a generation before these socialists realize evey body cannot work for the govt. Socialism is still taught in the schools and too prove how well it works they quote the PEMEX MODEL.


  12. Alan D. HARRIS
    August 15th, 2011 at 14:20 | #12

    To what extent, if any, do the drug cartel(s) and other nefarious “mex-org’s” have on PEMEX operations ?

  13. Joaquin Herrera
    November 23rd, 2011 at 13:53 | #13

    Looking for a role model, please take a look at Ecopetrol, a small NOC in Colombia, that has been able to reverse a declining oil and gas production, to become the only Latin America NOC, together with Petrobras, growing in oil and gas production.

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