Colombia has long been among Latin America’s brightest geographies for oil production, a status that shows no signs of fading. Government policy and economic growth have set the scene for a significant rise in oil production.
The boom in Colombia’s hydrocarbons sector is testament to the fact that the country has undergone significant and positive changes, with companies such as Reficar paving the way forward for a far more sustainable model of doing business.
The upturn in oil production coincides with a rise in regional investment, with the oil and gas industry having brought in $7bn last year: triple that of 2006 and 15 times that of 2002 according to the National Hydrocarbons Agency.
With an average crude output of 941,000 barrels per day in 2013 – 79 percent greater than that of 2005 – and May’s average oil production surpassing the one million barrels mark, Colombia’s oil industry looks at an assured return on investment for those doing away with their oil reservoirs.
Reyes Reinoso, CEO of state-owned Reficar, recognises the importance of upholding a hospitable business environment in Colombia’s hydrocarbons sector. “We believe that industrial sustainability is directly dependent on absolute harmony with the society around us,” says Reinoso, who also spoke to World Finance about the industry’s opportunities for expansion, elaborating on the importance of capitalising and contributing, where possible, to the country’s population of skilled workers and to Colombia’s thriving business climate.
Reficar is a subsidiary of Colombia’s foremost oil producer, Ecopetrol – an 88.5 percent state-owned company responsible for nearly 80 percent of the country’s overall production – charged with the expansion of the Cartagena Refinery, which is scheduled for completion in 2014 and budgeted at $6.4bn. On completion, the refinery is expected to reverse the country’s dependence on refined imports and add value and diversity to the
Reficar’s industry expansion project is indicative of the ways in which Colombia’s oil industry has changed in recent years, best characterised by sustainability in the ways in which employees and finances are acquired.
The new refinery “will significantly increase the refining capacity of the country by approximately 85,000-90,000 more barrels per day in refined fuels,” says Reinoso. The existing plant has only been able to process medium and light crude oil blends, but once completed the expansion will be equipped to process heavy crude oil.
The completed plant will convert 96 percent of heavy crude oil into essential high-quality products such as gasoline, jet fuel and diesel, while increasing the amount of light crude exported from Colombia. At present, heavy oil crude represents over 50 percent of Colombia’s production – with this figure set to rise – so it’s of great importance that the industry capitalises on these economic opportunities where possible.
“The Cartagena Refinery is extraordinarily significant for Colombia’s energy mix, as it will turn Colombia into a net exporter of high-value refined products and directly contribute to the development of the whole industry and its many associated sectors,” says Reinoso.
“The new technologies incorporated in the Cartagena expansion project will also make Colombia much more competitive in the regional oil refining market, in large part due to a significant investment in energy efficiency, flexibility, reliability and safety.”
Reficar’s ability to negotiate the terms of such an extensive contract gives some idea of the improvements to Colombia’s quality of business in recent years. “Given the size and complexity of the Cartagena Refinery Expansion Project, it required a considerable amount of resources from the banking market for its financing, as well as ample tenors for the repayment of loans,” says Reinoso.
“Financing proved particularly challenging due to market conditions throughout much of Europe in 2011. The fact that Reficar obtained financing from three export credit agencies (ECAs) and four world-renowned commercial banks for a total amount of $3.5bn, despite the financial crisis, reflects the support the project received and the large amount of investor confidence in Colombia.
“Aside from having a structure in place mitigating risks for those funding the project, Reficar implemented the strategy to first negotiate with the ECAs – which have higher requirements – and later incorporated commercial banks into the negotiation. This process made it far easier to obtain the support of commercial banks, given that ECAs had already agreed to participate.”
The project is the first project finance transaction in the country to have combined the public and private sectors, which included state-owned companies, private contractors, governmental credit agencies and private commercial banks. As such, this project finance structure is considered an innovation of sorts in the Colombian market, and should serve as an effective example to other government organisations of how best to conduct business.
Reficar’s ability to negotiate favourable financial terms in a difficult climate is underlined by a capacity to build and maintain a skilled local workforce and to abide by sustainable best practices. “We expect the Cartagena Refinery development to be used as a reference point by others in keeping with sustainable practices and strong social investment in the region,” says Reinoso.
“Reficar’s project was conceived and designed from the outset to comply with international environmental standards. Abiding by sustainability measures was a major parameter for judging our success and was best illustrated by our compliance with Colombian environmental regulations, by obtaining all approvals from the environmental authorities on time, and by demonstrating a strong environmental and social management plan for the project. The company, with the support of its financial and legal advisors, prepared all the additional information required by the ECAs and was able to comply with all their environmental requirements throughout the process.”
Sourcing a strong labour force
The issue of qualified labour shortage in Colombia remains a constant fear throughout much of the thriving oil industry, so it stands to reason that related projects should seek to rectify this concern wherever possible. “The workforce has been the most inspiring of all challenges,” says Reinoso. “We have worked very hard to train employees, offer a truly valuable working experience, and provide a very competitive salary to improve the living standards of over 15,000 employees.”
However, above and beyond the immediate employment benefits of the Cartagena Refinery project, Reficar’s most valuable achievement is the development of a training centre for unskilled workers, used for training workers in 16 different crafts based on the National Centre for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) guidelines.
A total of 5,271 men and women were trained – free of charge – as carpenters, electricians, welders and riggers as well as in specialised skills ranging from pipefitting to sandblasting. The training centre was made possible due to an inter-institutional alliance with a government-run technical school, Reficar, and its principal contractor Chicago, Bridge and Iron.
“We are also in process of securing the international suppliers of equipment, parts, chemicals, catalysts, instruments and service companies who participated in the procurement process,” says Reinoso, “in an effort to persuade them to open a branch in Cartagena’s industrial sector. If successful, this will not only create new jobs, but allow us to easily reach these companies for support and increase the likelihood of their continued business in Colombia.”
In an added effort to offset the shortfall in qualifications among Colombians looking to enter the workforce, “Reficar has just signed an initiative with Cartagena’s District office that we hope will act as the lasting legacy of the project. We call it our ‘Project for the city’,” says Reinoso. “After analysing a recent population census, we identified a number of Colombians who were without the means to gain the necessary technical qualifications required by local industry and future touristic project developments. As such, we’ve sought the help of several local companies and we’re currently hoping to catch the attention of one or more international non-government organisations with social funds to
support our cause.”
Reficar has also initiated an outplacement programme in cooperation with the local Chamber of Commerce, “where we prepare workers to continue with a productive working life after the project,” says Reinoso. “There are actually two ways to participate in the programme. The first sees us matching other companies and future projects with participants’ specific skills and experience, and the second, for those with a more developed entrepreneurial spirit, offers support in registering their own service company.
“All these initiatives have an important social impact and can be replicated elsewhere, as long as there is a strong leadership willing to promote alliances between the private and public sector.
“Reficar is committed to jointly creating value with its different stakeholders, in order to contribute to a more just and fair society, that continues along a path of progress. We lead programmes that allow the transformation of our city, the Caribbean region and all of Colombia; a country that becomes stronger on a day-to-day basis, and that position itself as one of the most attractive and solid investment alternatives in Latin America.”