RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - A U.S. class-action lawsuit over corruption at Brazil’s Petrobras will not overshadow the state oil company’s $74 billion, five-year plan to slash its crippling debt and refocus on its core business, chief executive officer Pedro Parente said on Wednesday.
In an interview in his offices in Rio de Janeiro, Parente also said Petrobras was pressing ahead with the sale of a stake in its fuels unit, BR Distribuidora, as part of a the divestment of $34.6 billion of non-core assets by the end of 2018.
A blueprint for the terms of the sale should be ready in about two weeks, Parente said, with domestic and foreign investors expressing interest in acquiring the stake.
Industry experts, however, have voiced concerns that U.S. legal issues could hinder Petrobras’ efforts to trim its $125 billion of debt, the largest in the oil industry.
Investors are suing Petrobras in New York, accusing it of covering up a sweeping graft scheme and publishing misleading accounts. They believe the corruption and mismanagement helped destroy nearly $200 billion of shareholder value in Petrobras since 2008.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers are seeking billions of dollars in recompense - though they have not specified an exact figure - while Petrobras may also face a payment of $1.6 billion or more to settle with the U.S. Justice Department.
A sizeable settlement could leave Petrobras without enough cash to develop giant new offshore oil resources south of Rio de Janeiro.
Yet Parente, who was appointed as CEO in May by a new center-right government swept into office by the graft scandal, is adamant that blame for corruption lies with corrupt politicians and former executives who hurt not just investors but Petrobras itself.
“We are a victim,” Parente told Reuters. “We do not understand or recognize that we ought to pay a relevant amount.”
Unlike, Enron, the former U.S. energy trading company that collapsed during an accounting scandal more than a decade ago, Petrobras did not benefit from the corruption, so it should not be liable, he said.
The new five-year plan, unveiled by his management team on Tuesday, pared investment by 25 percent, but would raise worldwide output to 3.4 million barrels a day of oil and natural gas equivalent, enough to make it one of the world’s largest publicly-traded oil companies.
“The future of Petrobras is assured with this plan,” he said. “We don’t see that this (legal) issue has the power to cast a shadow on the future on the company. It doesn’t.”
As it seeks to attract partners and sell assets in the refining sector, Petrobras will “soon” publish a domestic wholesale fuel-pricing policy that will outline the principles used to decide when to change gasoline, diesel and other fuel prices, but not provide the actual formulas used.
“Some assets will be more attractive if there is clarity over the autonomy in fuel pricing,” Parente said, insisting that the policy would not allow competitors to know “the formula” used to set prices for gasoline diesel and other fuels. “That would allow them to speculate against us.”
Petrobras was forced by the government, its controlling shareholder, to subsidize fuel for years while world prices were high and soaring demand outstripped its ability to produce diesel and gasoline, forcing it to import. At the same time, the government also made Petrobras spend heavily on expansion.
The losses on subsidies were the main spur to Petrobras’ industry-record debt. But in the last two years, oil and fuel prices have plumbed 10-year lows.
Petrobras now makes a healthy profit on fuel imports, a situation Parente said he plans to continue, at least until high prices start to undermine its market share.
Petrobras also expects to receive money from, rather than pay, Brazil’s federal government when talks are complete over the cost of 5 billion barrels of offshore oil purchased in 2010, Parente said.
The company paid the government $54 billion for the rights to the offshore oil in 2010.
Renegotiation of the oil in the Transfer of Rights, or “Cessao Onerosa” areas, after five years was a condition of the sale, which was made without competitive bidding.
While many analysts are concerned that Petrobras would have to pay the government billions of dollars to hang onto the rights, and perhaps billions more for the huge extra volumes of oil discovered after the purchase, Parente is convinced the federal government will end up owing Petrobras instead.
Rather than rising since the sale, the price of oil has plunged, making the Transfer of Rights area less valuable.
“We have a vision that at the end of the process, there will be a debt the federal government owes Petrobras,” he said.
He declined to give any values, but said his view is supported by a report from an international oil consulting group.
Parente’s view is backed up by the head of exploration and production policy at Brazil’s Energy Ministry who said in August that Petrobras has a good chance “of receiving” after negotiations that should be complete by year end.
Parente, a former minister in the 1995-2002 government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, voiced confident that new President Michel Temer would press ahead with changes to reduce Petrobras’ obligation to rely on domestic content and to invest in offshore oil fields.
“The government is keen to press ahead with these changes because the oil and gas sector will respond quickly to a change in the business environment,” he said.
Additional reporting by Rodrigo Viga Gaier and Daniel Flynn, writing by Jeb Blount; editing by Daniel Bases, G Crosse