Latin America Notebook: The Blue Amazon

By Claudio Agostini | September 1, 2007
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BRAZIL IS FAMOUS FOR ITS AMAZON rain forest. Its 3.2 million sq km (1.2 million sq mi) are full of natural resources, and helicopters — mainly from the army and governmental agencies like the Brazilian Institute of Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) — stay busy providing security, surveillance, and support for the region and the local population.

After 14 years of detailed studies of its continental shelf in the Atlantic by the Brazilian navy, the country in 2009 plans to extend its maritime boundaries, adding 712,000 sq km (275,000 sq mi) to the area of its 200-nm "exclusive economic zone," which today totals 3.5 million sq km (1.35 million sq mi). Given the similarity of its size and resources to that rain forest, the navy has dubbed the area the Blue Amazon.

Brazil today extracts about 85 percent of its oil and gas from the sea. The National Petroleum Agency (ANP), which issues licenses for and regulates exploration and production, has said its priority is increased investment from domestic and foreign private oil producers. Brazil continues to attract attention from international oil companies.


As the dominant player in Brazil’s oil sector, with majority positions in up-, mid-, and downstream activities and control of 95 percent of local crude oil production, state-controlled Petroleo Brasileiro SA. (Petrobras) is the operational arm of ANP’s strategy. In a country that draws 45 percent of its energy from renewable sources, Petrobras has aggressively expanded production and has a busy schedule for continuing to do so through 2010 to maintain Brazil’s self-sufficiency in oil and reduce foreign gas dependency. (Petrobras paid for half of the $40 million continental-shelf study.)

Most of Brazil’s crude oil is offshore in very deep water and consists of heavy grades. Petrobras’ ongoing oil and gas development is just behind the Gulf of Mexico in sheer numbers. Brazil has added more deepwater wells than the rest of the world combined.

The country’s largest oil-production region, accounting for 80 percent of current production, is Campos Basin in the state of Rio de Janeiro. But few offshore projects have more strategic importance than Mexilhão in the Santos Basin of São Paulo state, followed by Golfinho Basin in Espirito Santo state. These projects will significantly help reduce foreign gas dependency.

The local offshore market for helicopters is expanding with new oil and gas projects and investments. International operators like CHC and Bristow already have invested in local companies Brazil Helicopter Service and Aeroleo Air Taxi, respectively.

As of July, Brazil’s national fleet consisted of 1,064 helicopters. Roughly 90 serve the offshore oil and gas market daily, most at Campos Basin and primarily for Petrobras. Those aircraft transport about 20,000 passengers a month. There are more than 80 helidecks involved in these operations, on platforms and some vessels up to 120 nm from shore.

The current fleet is made up of Sikorsky Aircraft S-76s, Bell Helicopter 212s and 412s, and Eurocopter AS332 Super Pumas and Pumas, AS365 Dauphins, and As350 Esquilos. AgustaWestland’s AW 139 medium twin recently entered the market, with the first of three delivered to Senior Air Taxi.

The thinking among local manufacturers’ representatives and operators is that offshore operations will spur steady growth through this decade and into the next.

Given the helicopter’s essential role in the oil and gas industry, two years ago Petrobras started to review offshore flight security. It examined maintenance records, flights schedules, pilot qualifications, and other factors that lead to a safe flight. International companies like SGS and Lufthansa Technik are supporting the Petrobras effort. The company also sponsored and participated in the first International Helicopter Safety Team seminar in Brazil last June.

Sidney Menezes, Petrobras’ flight security operational coordinator and a speaker at that event, said "We are bringing the best knowledge and experiences to ensure the highest level safety and efficiency in our day-to-day and future operations."

Both the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations forecast Brazil’s gross domestic product (GDP) will grow at 4.5 percent this year and next. That slightly lags expected growth for Latin and South America. But even that growth should spur a rise in Brazil’s helicopter fleet, with a shift in coming years toward service helicopters making up a larger portion of that fleet.

Brazil’s Economic and Helicopter Fleet Growth

  2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
*Preliminary **Projection
GDP growth (percent) 5.7 2.9 3.7* 4.5** 4.5**
Helicopter fleet size 981 989 1017 1064 1109**
Helicopter fleet growth (percent) 3.6 0.9 3.0 4.7 4.3**

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