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Brazil, Venezuela, and Mexico: three ways to nationalize oil

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"Because Mexico nationalized so early ... it created a system in which nationalization became part of the political identity of Mexico," says independent energy analyst Roger Tissot.

But after its peak in 2004, Cantarell production suddenly slowed, which hit the entire industry. Mexico went from producing more than 3 million barrels a day to just over 2 million. Inefficiencies, mismanagement, and taxation rates that cripple the state-run company's ability to reinvest in technology and exploration came to the fore.

Suddenly, the company that was once considered the antidote to Mexico's dependence on the United States was fighting for its own survival. Today, its proven reserves are running out, and it lacks refining capacity, so it must import billions of dollars in products like gasoline. Its hydrocarbon potentials are enormous, but it lacks the technology and expertise to exploit deepwater reserves in the Gulf of Mexico, as the US has done. Most other countries would call in experts from the multinationals, but Mexico is constitutionally barred from doing so.

Any talk of "privatizing" Pemex still means political suicide. But facing Pemex's demise, Mexico has moved to make the company more enticing to foreign participation in recent years.

In 2008, Mexican President Felipe Calderón passed a reform opening up incentives for more private contracting, instead of the fixed-service contracts that dissuaded many would-be participants. That could open the way for international partnerships in the Gulf of Mexico.

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