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Mexico Moves Closer to Fuel Controls With AMLO Bill Approval

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 4/15/2021 Amy Stillman

(Bloomberg) -- Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s controversial proposal to tighten control over the country’s fuel market has cleared the lower house of congress, another step in his long-sought goal of resuming the state’s energy monopoly.

With 271 lawmakers in favor, 134 opposed, and 8 abstaining in the final vote, the chamber approved the president’s proposal to give national oil company Petroleos Mexicanos greater control over the recently liberalized fuel market that lured investments from Royal Dutch Shell Plc, BP Plc, Chevron Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp. The bill will now be taken up by the senate, where the ruling Morena party and its allies have a majority.

If approved as expected, the initiative would reform the country’s hydrocarbon law and expand government control over fuel distribution, imports and marketing. It would allow for the suspension of permits based on national or energy security, and also let Pemex, as the state oil producer is known, to take control of facilities whose permits have been suspended.

a store in a parking lot: AMLO's Nationalist Bent Casts 200 Energy Projects Into Limbo © Bloomberg AMLO's Nationalist Bent Casts 200 Energy Projects Into Limbo

A worker inspects a vehicle at a Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) gas station in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021.

It’s the latest bid by the president to try to restore Pemex and power utility Comision Federal de Electricidad to their former glory as their aging infrastructure makes them less competitive. Since rising to power in 2018, Lopez Obrador has fought against landmark energy reforms that opened the energy industry to investment from the private sector.

Read More: Mexico Minister Accuses Fuel Retailers of Pocketing Subsidies

The new law is akin to “indirect expropriation” of fuel retailers’ assets, said Oscar Lopez Velarde, a law professor at Universidad Iberoamericana who specializes in energy issues. It allows the state “to take control of the administration and operations of the permit holder indefinitely for reasons that are highly subjective, and without there actually being a breach of its obligations,” he said on Wednesday.

The president, popularly known as AMLO, is using the bill to stoke nationalist voter sentiment ahead of the main electoral test of his presidency: keeping control of congress in midterm elections this year.

Companies and groups in the fuel sector that hold permits are studying legal options to defend their interests, Onexpo, the national fuel retailers’ association, said in a statement late Wednesday, adding that it will issue a detailed position on the matter soon.

National Pride

Even if the legislation is held up in courts -- like a similar bill to prioritize CFE in the power market -- the effort gives AMLO another shot to deliver on his election campaign promise to strengthen Pemex, one of the nation’s largest employers and a symbol of national pride.

In 2016, Mexico allowed companies other than Pemex to import, distribute and sell fuels for the first time since the industry was nationalized in 1938. Since then, the world’s top energy companies have invested aggressively in Mexico. International trading houses including Glencore Plc and Trafigura Group also built fuel storage and logistics infrastructure to bring more barrels into the country.

The arrival of competition has seen Pemex’s share of the gasoline and diesel market fall by double digits, with competitors importing more diesel than the state giant for the first time in June of last year. Pemex has also struggled under its debt burden and long-term production declines.

(Updates second paragraph with final vote in lower house, Onexpo comment in seventh paragraph.)

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