Mexico's Oil Revolution

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Americans don't understand Mexico. So here's a family legend for them.

A century ago, the story goes, a lady in my wife's family married a Mexican man. With some trepidation, the Texas side invited these folks to one of their family reunions, but didn't really mingle. Then the Mexicans invited the Texans over, and those who went found that the woman had married into one of the country's top business families and that we were the poor relations.

Ever since then I've been threatening, in jest, to jump the Texas-Mexico fence the other way.

Mexico is not nearly as poor as we pretend. Its culture is older than ours, its top billionaire is richer than ours, the soccer is better than ours. And Mexico has got oil, lots of it. Its part of the Gulf of Mexico is as rich in it as our gulf, and the Eagle Ford shale play that Americans are so hopped up about extends deep into Mexico.

What the new PRI government of Enrique Pena Nieto has proposed is that the country's 1938 constitution be changed so that "foreign" (read U.S.) oil companies can participate in new oil finds. It's a technology swap, with American drillers working with the national oil company, Pemex, and getting a piece of the action.

Pena Nieto is trying to get ahead of his main political opposition, the former ruling party called PAN, which recently sought to completely break the Pemex monopoly, removing it and the CFE electrical monopoly from government control.

With the PAN pushing for a greater market opening, and the PRI itself holding a majority of seats in the legislature, Pena Nieto's plan has a pretty good chance of passing, even though it requires a change in the constitution.

Under the PRI plan, Pemex and CFE would be split into two units, with the private side able to take on foreign partners.

Exxon Mobil ( XOM), Chevron ( CVX), and oil companies in Venezuela and Argentina have all expressed interest, noting that Pemex is relying on obsolete technology and that newer equipment could quickly boost offshore production.

Pemex' production has been declining since 2004, to the point where Kinder Morgan Energy Partners ( KMP) has actually begun exporting natural gas to Mexico through its pipelines. Successful new strikes could bring the whole economy back, as they have brought the U.S. back.

While it's "big oil" that's being talked about most here, I suspect Nieto's plan may provide a bigger boost to some smaller U.S. exploration companies with Mexican-American leadership, like Sanchez Energy ( SN), headed by a former Texas gubernatorial candidate, Tony Sanchez, and his son.

Sanchez is just now moving beyond its original niche in Texas' Eagle Ford shale, buying leases in what's called the "Tuscaloosa Marine" play, extending across the center of Louisiana into Mississippi. That experience could set the company up to deal with a partner like Pemex.

Such a smaller company, run by Mexican-Americans, might be welcome in the Texas-Mexico border areas, where Pemex is currently planning to invest $200 million in exploration, according to EagleFordShale.com

Rather than giving away the country's "patrimony," in other words, Pena Nieto is trying to bring in technology and create new partnerships in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Anyone who thinks the pre-1938 oil rush of multinationals buying Mexico is about to come back may be in for a surprise.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned but his wife's family has a lease on its land with Sanchez Oil.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and a tech reporter since 1982. His specialty has been getting to the future ahead of the crowd, then leaving before success arrived. That meant covering the Internet in 1985, e-commerce in 1994, the Internet of Things in 2005, open source in 2005 and, since 2010, renewable energy. He has written for every medium from newspapers and magazines to Web sites, from books to blogs. He still seeks tomorrow from his Craftsman home in Atlanta.

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