Mexico’s Congress has passed major reforms to open up the country’s energy sector to private investment for the first time in 75 years. While the Energy Reform was expected to make its way through Congress early on in President Peña Nieto’s six year term, the fst track speed at which it moved just before the December recess, has taken many by surprise.
The initiative, which will include changes to the Constitution, passed both chambers of Mexico’s Congress in a span of just twenty-four hours. Draft legislation was first presented to a Senate committee to vet its constitutionality on Saturday. Committee members had about twenty hours to review the nearly 300 page document. A modified version of the bill passed in a full Senate session Tuesday night and was sent to the Chamber of Deputies Wednesday afternoon.
A legislative coalition – known as the Pact for Mexico – has allowed a flurry of major reforms to the labor, education, fiscal, electoral, and criminal justice systems to pass with relative ease this year. The Energy Reform bill is perhaps the most closely watched piece of Mexican legislation by foreign investors since the ratification of NAFTA.
While the opposition did not have the numbers to prevent passage of Energy Reform, it did pull out a few delaying tactics. A number of legislators from leftists parties literally barricaded themselves inside of congressional chambers shortly ahead of the Wednesday evening session on the measure in the lower house. Their primary demand was a public referendum or consultation process on Energy Reform. Lawmakers ended up passing the bill in an auditorium hastily adapted for the debate.
While Energy Reform had majority support among legislators, the initiative is controversial among the general public in a country that celebrates oil expropriation as a national holiday and where the public oil company, Pemex, is a symbol of sovereignty and the cornerstone of the economy. Pemex is the second richest company in Latin America with a rank of 36 on the Fortune 500 list. Energy Reform also includes significant changes to Mexico’s state-owned electric utility, CFE (Fortune 500 rank of 470).
Supporters of reform say Pemex has been unable to keep up with techniques to take advantage of deepwater reserves and shale deposits. Opponents say pitting Pemex against multinational oil giants for well head extraction and production contracts amounts to the privatization of Mexico’s oil wealth.
The foreign business press has suggested opening Mexico’s energy sector to private companies will inject billions of dollars worth of new revenue into the Mexican economy. Many Mexicans are skeptical of such claims after experiences with the privatization of the telecommunications, banking, and national railways failed to produce touted benefits.
Revenue from Pemex accounts for around 40 percent of the federal budget – funding a large part of the national healthcare system, public schools, and government offices.