RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) — The unconfirmed announcement that Petrobras could be sitting on the fossil fuel find of the century has more than doubled the expectations riding on the state-run Brazilian oil company.
Even though the group refuses to back a claim by the head of Brazil's National Petroleum Agency, Haroldo Lima, that a newly discovered field it controls could contain a massive amount of oil -- 33 billion barrels' worth -- it is now firmly in focus as a possible world champion in the sector.
Petrobras shares were Tuesday trading around 122 dollars in New York after heavy buying on Lima's comments the day before pushed them 7.67 percent higher.
There was no sign the cold water Petrobras was pouring on the discovery claim was withering the ardor of investors.
Their interest was already piqued last November, when the company declared an already significant find: an offshore site named Tupi was estimated to contain up to eight billion barrels of light crude.
That alone was enough to generate talk of Brazil joining OPEC.
Now Lima's suggestion that a neighboring field called Carioca off the coast from Rio de Janeiro was five times bigger has taken the excitement to another level.
The expectations now are that Petrobras, founded in 1953, is about to join the elite of the big league.
Fortune magazine lists it right now as the 12th biggest oil company in the world.
According to Petrobras, it had net earnings of 170.6 billion reais last year, with net profit of 21.5 billion reais (101 billion dollars and 12.8 billion dollars, respectively).
It is pumping out 2.2 million barrels a day after bringing on-line six new offshore oil platforms last year. Another three are due to open this year.
Brazil's current total proven reserves amount to 13.3 billion barrels, according to Petrobras, which controls them.
But if Tupi and Carioca turn out to be as big as hoped, the country could leap up the table of oil producers, overtaking the United States and Nigeria, which have reserves of 21 billion and 36 billion barrels respectively.
Some analysts -- encouraged by talk from a few Petrobras directors -- are even eyeing as much as 80 billion extra barrels of oil lying under the seabed off southeast Brazil.
That top-line number would make Brazil a bigger oil producer than Libya, Russia and Venezuela, and put it on the heels of Gulf Arab exporters.
Many challenges lie behind the astronomical figures though, primarily the cost and problems in getting at oil located kilometers under water, rock, sand and -- worst of all -- unstable salt layers.
Petrobras is a recognized world leader in deep-sea oil drilling, with technological know-how the envy of many competitors.
Still, it will have to invest billions of dollars and possibly up to a decade of work in overcoming the geological obstacles in its path.
That is only viable as long as oil prices stay over 60 dollars a barrel.
Present prices edging towards 114 dollars a barrel are working in Petrobras's favor, especially given the capital market debt it is certain to ring up in coming years to gear up to access the oil.
Brazil's government owns a controlling 55.7 percent share of Petrobras, which has both voting and non-voting shares traded.
Up to now, the company has been focused on making Brazil self-sufficient in oil. The new finds make it likely to become a major exporter.
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