Brazil could follow the same production growth as the North Sea experienced in its first decade, according to the chief executive of Petrobras, the country’s state-controlled oil champion.

Petrobras has so far discovered 15bn barrels of proved reserves in an area called the “pre-salt”, lying below a 2km-deep salt layer under the seabed and estimated to hold up to 50bn barrels of oil. The group is forecasting daily production of 6.42m barrels of oil equivalent per day by 2020.

Jose Sergio Gabrielli, the group’s chief executive, said the country’s forecasts put it “at the same slope of production as in the first 10 years of the North Sea”.

Production from the North Sea, by both the UK and Norway, reached peak production of 6m barrels a day in 1999.

Petrobras expects to produce 2.77m boe/day this year. The pre-salt’s share of total domestic oil production will increase from 2 per cent in 2011 to 40.5 per cent in 2020.

The company, said Mr Gabrielli, is growing faster than “Exxon, Shell, Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, Eni … you name it”. Whether Petrobras would be the world’s top producer in 2020 depended “on the speed of the others”.

“Oil growth is a matter of discovery and resources. If you don’t have the resources, you need to buy,” he added, presenting the company’s five-year business plan in London.

Petrobras plans to invest $224.7bn between 2011 and 2015, with 57 per cent of this going towards exploration and production projects. The company’s current break-even price for oil produced from the area is $45 a barrel – compared with the current market price of about $120 a barrel for Brent crude, said Mr Gabrielli, adding that it could be even better as the company increases its productivity.

Petrobas has also launched a disposal plan, aiming to raise $13.6bn, in order to increase its return on assets. It might “farm out” blocks at home and abroad to raise cash, as well as selling shares in Brazilian companies, the company said.

Mr Gabrielli also said the company would keep investing in domestic refining capacity. Demand for oil products in Brazil is growing rapidly and Petrobras would lose market share if it did not expand. The company operates 100 per cent of the refining capacity in Brazil but has a market share of just 40 per cent of the domestic fuel market. The country’s last greenfield refinery, he said, was built in 1980.

Petrobras could earn an extra $8 a barrel margin if it refined oil domestically rather than simply exporting crude oil, added Almir Barbassa, chief financial officer.

Mr Gabrielli also added his voice to the industry debate about whether the integrated model – combining refining and marketing operations with an exploration and production arm – was out of date in the wake of the decision by America’s ConocoPhillips to split itself into two.

“Integrated oil companies make a better return in general,” he said.

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