Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Tuesday denied any delay to a flagship refinery project in his home state after the deputy finance minister was quoted as saying $2.5 billion for its construction will be moved to state oil firm Pemex.
The planned investment for the Dos Bocas refinery "can go to exploration and production" for Pemex, Arturo Herrera told the Financial Times in an interview during a trip to London for meetings with investors.
However, Lopez Obrador stood by his plan to build the refinery within three years, saying the tender could be unveiled next week. In answer to a question about whether the $2.5 billion would be spent this year on the refinery, said "Yes."
The president's plans to fast-track construction of the new refinery in Tabasco, his home state, have concerned investors that it would take away much-needed resources from Pemex, which is creaking under $106 billion of debt.
His energy minister, Rocio Nahle, said she understood Herrera's budget concerns but said the project was on track.
"The faster we do this project, the cheaper it will be," she said on Mexican radio.
The conflicting statements appeared to confuse investors.
Mexico's benchmark stock index reversed gains and weakened 0.7 percent after Lopez Obrador's rebuttal of Herrera's comments, while the peso pared gains.
"Contradictions within the federal government do not help financial markets," said James Salazar, an economist at bank CI Banco.
The government is under growing pressure to dispel doubts Pemex can successfully manage more than $16 billion of debt payments due by the end of next year, halt the firm's extended oil output slide and avert a threatened credit rating downgrade to "junk."
Finance minister Carlos Urzua said last week the government would announce new measures to support the ailing company, after unveiling a $3.9 billion bailout in February that failed to impress ratings agencies.
Herrera said the government was in talks with the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral organizations about structuring a fresh capital injection for Pemex, though he noted that those discussions were technical and no borrowing was involved, according to the Financial Times.
Lopez Obrador said it was very likely the government would make an announcement about tenders for the refinery on March 18, a national holiday that celebrates the 1938 nationalization of Mexico's oil industry.
He also predicted Pemex would reverse its output decline by next year, with "new wells" coming on line by December under a production plan that allows Pemex to hire service companies to help explore mature fields.
He repeated that the refinery would cost between $6 billion and $8 billion, and said that work for now was focused on preparing the ground at the refinery site and readying the framework for the tender.
The refinery has already hit obstacles after the proposed construction site was cleared of protected mangrove without the correct environmental permits. The government has yet to present an environmental impact assessment for the wildlife-rich site.
Herrera said the tender framework was being prepared, but said the finance ministry needed to see a solid financial plan before releasing funds.
"We will not authorize (construction) until we have a final figure that is not very different from the original $8 billion," said Herrera.
($1 = 19.3083 Mexican pesos)