* Political battle over royalties threatens to slow sector
* Deepwater oil auctions on hold until deal reached
* Brazil hopes to become major oil exporter by 2020
By Raymond Colitt and Brian Ellsworth
BRASILIA/RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct 3 Brazil's
government is racing to forge a deal in Congress this week that
it hopes will prevent a lengthy legal and political battle over
its huge offshore oil reserves.
Brazil's states and cities have been quarreling for years
over how to distribute the expected multi-trillion-dollar
windfall from one of the world's biggest recent oil finds.
Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva called the so-called
"subsalt" fields, discovered in 2007, "a gift from God" that
could make Brazil a rich country.
President Dilma Rousseff's government is now trying to
defuse the arguments by offering a cut of its own take in
future royalties from the fields. Officials are confident
Congress will approve the government proposal in coming days or
"We're at ease. The interested sides are hard at work ...
and by the looks of it, they're forging a quite significant
majority," Gilberto Carvalho, general-secretary of the
president's office, told Reuters.
Yet some leading politicians are still balking at the
proposal or threatening legal action. The final outcome is up
in the air at a time when Rousseff's relationship with Congress
has been poisoned by budget cuts and other problems.
At stake is Brazil's plan to become one of the world's
largest suppliers of oil outside of OPEC and to ensure revenue
to finance improvements in infrastructure, health programs and
education, which are crucial to entering the ranks of developed
The final outcome will have major implications for state
oil company Petrobras (PETR4.SA)(PBR.N), and possibly for
multinational energy companies such as Italy's (ENI.MI) and
Norway's Norsk Hydro (NHY.OL), who have expressed interest in
helping Brazil develop the fields.
Graphic of oil discoveries: link.reuters.com/fyh84m
Factbox on Brazil oil finds [ID:nN23274907]
So far Brazil is pumping only a small fraction of the
subsalt fields and requires tens of billions of dollars to
develop the remaining reserves.
An agreement on distributing oil revenues is needed for the
government to go ahead with a planned auction next year for the
rights to develop the vast oil fields.
The so-called subsalt region is believed to hold more than
50 billion barrels of oil buried under a thick layer of salt.
At current prices that would be about $4 trillion in revenue.
Failure to reach agreement on the bill would spark a
drawn-out legal battle, potentially stalling fresh investments
for several years. Without a compromise, Congress would almost
certainly overrule last year's veto by Lula of a law that would
have distributed more revenue to non-producer states.
The three largest oil producing states -- Rio de Janeiro,
Sao Paulo and Espirito Santo -- are keen to uphold the veto.
Sergio Cabral, governor of Rio de Janeiro, said he would go
all the way to the Supreme Court to ensure his state's oil
income. Losing it would generate a political backlash for him
and President Dilma Rousseff, Cabral warned.
"The electoral tragedy in Rio would be dramatic," said
Cabral, wary of losing cash before hosting the 2016 Olympics.
Rio de Janeiro pumps the vast majority of Brazil's roughly
2 million barrels per day of crude.
Cabral proposes hiking a separate oil excise tax, which
state oil company Petrobras in turn has said would violate
existing contracts and force it to go to court.
New framework legislation passed last year heightened state
control over the subsalt region and made state-led oil company
Petrobras (PETR4.SA). But private investors can still take a
stake of up to 70 percent in joint-ventures.
Mauricio Pedrosa, a partner with asset management group
Queluz Asset in Rio de Janeiro, said any changes to existing
contracts would be a blow to the company.
"If the royalty agreement alters existing contracts it
could affect Petrobras' cash flow. It's another risk factor for
the company," said Pedrosa, who helps manage around 300 million
reais ($158 million in assets).
The proposal by Rousseff's administration would cut the
federal government's cut of royalties by almost a third and
distribute that to non-producer states [ID:nS1E78D28F].
Producer states like Rio de Janeiro would see a small cut.
The offer was rebuffed by some players, particularly by
municipal governments, which would see the biggest losses.
"We don't understand why the government is punishing the
municipalities. We are the ones who suffer the economic and
social effects of oil operations," said Riverton Mussi, mayor
of the city of Macae -- the country's main oil hub.
Mussi, who estimates Macae would lose a quarter of its
annual budget under the government's plan, also said he would
defend his city's oil income in court.
"Right now this debate is holding hostage the whole
development of the sector," said Latin America analyst
Christopher Garman of the Eurasia consultancy in Washington.
(Additional reporting by Jeferson Ribeiro; Editing by Bob