Brazil President Lula Fires Petrobras CEO After Dividend Dispute

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(Bloomberg) -- Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva shook up the leadership of the nation’s state-owned oil company, firing the chief executive officer and one of his top deputies after months of sparring.

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Petroleo Brasileiro SA CEO Jean Paul Prates, who had fought with the president over dividend payments, was formally dismissed at a board meeting Wednesday. The company’s chief financial officer, Sergio Caetano Leite, was also terminated.

Lula, as the president is known, plans to nominate Magda Chambriard, the former head of Brazil’s oil and gas regulator, to replace Prates. Clarice Coppetti, the executive director of corporate affairs, will fill in as temporary CEO, Petrobras said.

Reaction in markets was swift and negative as investors braced for a new CEO who analysts warn could be more willing than her predecessor to put the president’s priorities above those of shareholders.

Petrobras’ preferred shares dropped as much as 8.3% in Sao Paulo, the biggest intraday slump since March 8, when the announcement of a lower-than-expected dividend payout disappointed markets and drove a widespread rout across Brazilian assets.

“The sudden change in management adds significant uncertainty,” Regis Cardoso, an analyst at XP Investimentos, wrote in a note to clients.

Also See: Petrobras’s Next CEO Is an Oil Veteran Who Champions Exploration

Prates’s departure ends months of speculation that his days at Petrobras were numbered. Tensions escalated earlier this year when he refused to align himself with government-appointed board members who voted to withhold the payout of extraordinary dividends to shareholders who’d grown used to steady returns.

Prates was applauded by employees on Wednesday afternoon in Rio de Janeiro when he left the company’s downtown headquarters.

“I’m sad, that’s all,” he said, while also defending his track record on fuel pricing and investments. “The company’s future is on track with the energy transition, good projects in the portfolio to be analyzed.”

The firing may add to concern that Petrobras is coming under increasing pressure from the ruling Workers’ Party to help revive Brazilian industry and create jobs, at the expense of shareholders. The dividend drama shocked some investors who viewed it as a sign of growing political interference in Latin America’s top oil-producing nation.

After weeks of debate, Petrobras ultimately approved returning half its available cash to investors through a special dividend, as Prates’s executive board had initially proposed. The government is the biggest shareholder, and the dividends have helped shore up a fiscal deficit at a time spending is on the rise.

Prates told the executive board before the official announcement that Lula had asked for his position back. In a message seen by Bloomberg, he said that his mission was “prematurely cut short,” blaming Alexandre Silveira, the energy and mines minister, and Rui Costa, Lula’s chief of staff, with whom he had clashed.

A former senator for Lula’s left-wing party with a history of working in the oil industry, Prates became chief executive in January 2023, shortly after Lula resumed the presidency. Petrobras had burned through six CEOs, including interim ones, from 2019 until Prates’s appointment.

Under his leadership, Petrobras changed direction, halting asset sales, shielding consumers from sharp fluctuations in global oil prices and earmarking billions of dollars for energy transition investments. The company recently boosted the budget for its five-year business plan to $102 billion, its biggest spending plan since 2015.

Petrobras said it received a notice from the Energy Ministry late on Tuesday confirming that it would propose Chambriard to replace Prates.

The engineer started her career at Petrobras in 1980, working at the company for 22 years, before moving to Brazilian oil regulator Agência Nacional de Petróleo, Gás natural e Biocombustíveis, known as ANP. She was appointed head of the agency by former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff in 2012 and held the position until 2016.

Like Prates, Chambriard was part of Lula’s transition team for energy in 2022. At that time, she had already been identified as a possible candidate for Petrobras’s top job. The former ANP head has defended the need for Brazil to explore for oil in new areas, including the Equatorial Margin and the Pelotas Basin.

“The pre-salt boom is over. It’s time to look for new frontiers, so Brazil can keep producing oil,” she told Bloomberg in an interview in December.

Chambriard also backs more investment in domestic oil refining, and wants to see more commodities processed in Brazil rather than exported as raw materials.

The ousting of Prates marks a deterioration in Petrobras’s governance, and Chambriard’s mission won’t be easy, Citigroup Inc. said in a note. She “arrives with the pressure to fulfill the investment plan and accelerate Petrobras’s capex expansion” and this may result in lower dividend payments, it said.

--With assistance from Rachel Gamarski, Peter Millard and Leda Alvim.

(Updates to include CFO departure in second paragraph)

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