July 18, 2018 / 1:30 PM / in 3 months

Colombia's President-elect names Maria Fernanda Suarez energy minister

BOGOTA, July 18 (Reuters) - Colombia’s President-elect Ivan Duque on Wednesday named Maria Fernanda Suarez as mining and energy minister when he takes office in August, a role that will require her to bolster oil production to help weak economic growth and settle messy mining disputes.

Suarez, 44, is currently executive vice president at state oil company Ecopetrol. She served as director of public credit at the finance ministry and as vice president of investments for the Porvenir pension fund. She has also held senior positions at Citibank, ABN AMRO and Bank of America.

Suarez has a Masters degree in public policy from Georgetown University. She will replace German Arce.

“She has a brilliant resume in the public and private sectors,” Duque said in a statement.

As mines and energy minister, Suarez faces a difficult task as Colombia struggles to increase oil production to help increase revenue and bolster the weak economy after years of weak international oil prices.

“With her, we will promote greater diversification of national energy, efficiency and competitiveness in the sector, provide energy security for Colombia, and social and environmental responsibility in all energy mining production sectors,” Duque said.

At current rates of production, Colombia has less than six years worth of oil reserves, the energy ministry says, and urgent investment in exploration is needed to replace reserves.

Duque’s solution to dwindling oil reserves is to encourage investment in exploration, which he says could provide years more oil production, and give tax relief to the sector.

He has also pledged additional investment at state-run Ecopetrol’s refineries to allow exports of more higher-value derivatives.

Still, with the economy growing at an expected pace of just 2.7 percent this year and a budget deficit that needs to be reduced, funding such expenditure may be tough.

The Colombian Petroleum Association (ACP), says the industry needs to spend up to $7 billion a year just to keep output between 800,000 and 860,000 barrels per day.

Oil companies are already grappling with security concerns as well as local referendums - on whether to allow mining in certain areas - and environmental court rulings that have stymied major mining projects in Latin America’s fourth-largest economy.

A recent paper by the ACP, which represents private crude producers, warned that planned referendums put one-fifth of oil production at risk.

Private oil companies plan to invest up to $4.9 billion this year, ACP said, while Ecopetrol plans to spend up to $4 billion.

Reporting by Helen Murphy Editing by Nick Zieminski

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