By Marta Nogueira, Gram Slattery and Ron Bousso
RIO DE JANEIRO/LONDON (Reuters) – As the weeks ticked down to Brazil’s biggest-ever oil auction, state-run Petrobras held increasingly frantic talks to find potential partners, with the heaviest blow coming when major Exxon Mobil Corp (N:) pulled out days before, according to six people familiar with the matter.
While many firms were far from ready to take on enormous signing fees and investments, Exxon came closest but ultimately failed to reach acceptable terms for the blockbuster bidding round, according to four of the sources, who requested anonymity to discuss confidential negotiations.
With that, the state firm formally known as Petroleo Brasileiro SA (SA:) was left to anchor an embarrassingly empty bidding round on Wednesday with token support from Chinese firms.
The big Brazilian round was the latest offshore auction this year to undershoot expectations, hurt by competition from shale oil and other unconventional sources as well as lower demand forecasts.
Most of the talks to form consortia between Petrobras and other oil firms were and brief and informal, according to the sources. But negotiations with Exxon were relatively advanced, offering the major a large stake in the coveted Buzios oil block until talks fell apart in the last few weeks, sources said.
The ill-fated talks show how even global firms that were seriously interested in the landmark “transfer-of-rights” (TOR) auction on Wednesday could not accept the terms of a required partnership with Petrobras – long seen as a bottleneck to the development of Brazil’s most promising deepwater resources.
The proposed Exxon-Petrobras consortium, which would have included the two Chinese state firms that ultimately bought 10% of Buzios block’ rights, CNODC and CNOOC (HK:), would have given a seal of private-sector approval to the landmark auction.
Instead the lack of major partners revealed how the powerful role of Petrobras in the so-called “pre-salt polygon,” along with complicated development terms and expensive signing fees discourage interest, even among majors with large purchasing power, in one of the world’s biggest proven oil reserves.
Exxon and Petrobras did not respond to requests for comment.
CNOOC and CNPC did not immediately respond to e-mails sent outside business hours.
Much remains unclear as to why the talks did not bear fruit.
One source said the Petrobras and Exxon disagreed over the way billions of dollars would be paid to the Brazilian firm in compensation for prior investments. Others cited differences over how much to invest in platforms to ramp up production.
Exxon was interested in taking over operations at the field, a non-starter for Petrobras, according to one of the sources.
All sources agreed that the complicated nature of the TOR auction played a major role in keeping the talks from reaching the finish line. This has been confirmed by Brazilian authorities to explain why the country failed to catch money from foreign oil companies.
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