Latin American energy spotlight: Guyana, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago

Washington D.C. Correspondent
Illustration of a wooden boat on a sandy beach, pointing toward wind turbines on a small island in the distance.
Illustration by Nadya Nickels.

Many Latin American and Caribbean nations could become major clean energy players — but may rely on fossil fuel revenues to do so.

While blessed with abundant critical minerals and renewable energy resources, this region also is overflowing with oil and gas reserves that governments hope to use to tackle high levels of poverty.

“We are living in an era of incoherences, almost a paradox,” André Guimarães, director of the Brazil-based Amazon Environmental Research Institute, told Cipher.

These countries are home to roughly 660 million people, compared to the roughly 370 million people in North America, according to 2022 World Bank data. Despite its large population, this region is responsible for just 5% of global carbon emissions. As the recent deadly floods in Brazil show, the region also remains highly vulnerable to the many impacts of climate change, like more intense hurricanes, flooding, coastal erosion and sea level rise.

Earlier this week, we interviewed top officials in this region about competitiveness issues they’re facing. This explainer helps put that debate into context.

Latin America and the Caribbean has one of the highest levels of income inequality, with 3% of the population, or about 17 million people, lacking access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Any efforts these governments make to usher in the energy transition must be accompanied by concrete steps to ensure clean energy is affordable and related jobs are available for its citizens, leaders tell Cipher.

Expecting low- and middle-income countries not to exploit their fossil fuel resources to develop their economies is unrealistic, said Stuart Young, energy minister for the island nation Trinidad and Tobago. “The developed world needs to be pragmatic about [the] energy transition.”

A look at how decarbonization is unfolding in three countries — Guyana, Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago — reveals how mixed the energy transition picture is in this part of the world.


Guyana is racing ahead with plans to exploit the oil and gas reserves that have helped lift up its economy in recent years. It also plays a key role in supplying Europe with much-needed oil following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to the IEA.

At an open house at the Embassy of Guyana in Washington D.C. over the weekend, Ambassador Samuel Hinds took a minute out of greeting visitors to speak to Cipher about the country’s plans.

“We are going to be using our income from oil to develop life after oil: We will be using it to improve health and education, improve infrastructure, data and systems and so on,” said Hinds.

The nation already has invested in 10 MW of solar electricity and is looking to add hydroelectric power to its largely fossil fuel mix, Hinds said.

In fact, Guyana has long been an environmentally conscious state, with environmental protection legislation on the books for about 30 years.

Guyana Ambassador Samuel Hinds at the embassy open house in Washington D.C.

Guyana Ambassador Samuel Hinds greeting visitors at the embassy’s open house in Washington D.C. Photo credit: Amena H. Saiyid.

But more recently, headlines have focused on how the country has emerged as a hotbed for offshore drilling since allowing an ExxonMobil-led coalition to exploit oil and gas fields. Oil production surged from about 100,000 barrels per day in 2020 to nearly 400,000 barrels per day in March 2023, and is expected to reach 1.2 million barrels per day by 2027.

Guyana leans heavily on oil to run its grid, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, but it’s aiming to use natural gas drilled off its shores to provide more reliable and 50% cheaper electricity for its citizens, according to Reuters.

Recent news reports about the country’s oil ambitions illustrate the potential and drawbacks.

This includes questions about how Guyana plans to use the revenue gleaned from fossil fuels to forge its energy transition path. Concern persists regarding to what degree economic benefits from increased oil production will trickle down to indigenous communities there, as discussed in this recent, expansive New York Times article reported from the country.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Despite its aggressive oil and gas exploration, Guyanese President Irfaan Ali said in a recent BBC interview that Guyana’s net-carbon footprint remains zero and that its rainforest, which is the size of England and Scotland, remains intact.


With the largest economy in Latin America, Brazil is in an exceptional position to benefit from climate action, according to a World Bank report. The country already gets nearly 90% of its electricity from renewable energy, mainly hydropower, and has managed to supply it to far-flung rural communities using billions in transmission investments.

However, Brazil also is ranked as the ninth largest oil producer globally and expects to remain a net producer of this fuel owing to low production costs.

“Our strength lies in our energy matrix diversity,” Brazil’s energy minister Alexandre Silveira told Cipher on the sidelines of the CERAWeek global energy conference by S&P Global in Houston in March.

Looking ahead, Brazil wants to position itself as a leading producer of sustainable aviation fuels as it already is the world’s second largest producer of biofuels, Luciana Aparecida da Costa, director of Brazil Development Bank’s (BNDES) infrastructure, energy transition and climate change division, said at an April BloombergNEF summit in New York City.

The country also wants to use its clean electricity to make hydrogen and holds significant reserves of minerals critical to clean energy technologies, like nickel, lithium, bauxite and graphite.

But concerns about mining’s environmental impacts persist, especially among indigenous communities living in the Amazon rainforest, where nickel reserves remain untapped.

“If we could find these reserves in a decent and responsible way that would be wonderful, but the way we do things south of the equator is we tear down the forest and build highways, and dump all the residues around and create a very big mess,” Shigueo Watanabe, a climate and energy expert with the Climainfo Institute, a Brazilian environmental information organization, told Cipher.

Trinidad and Tobago

Unlike Brazil with its nearly clean grid, the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago is almost exclusively dependent on natural gas as both a fuel source and a driver of the nation’s economy.

The country’s electricity grid runs almost entirely on natural gas, and it’s the region’s third largest producer of it behind Mexico and Argentina, according to the IEA.

Faced with declining reserves of natural gas, Trinidad and Tobago is now actively trying to diversify its electricity mix with wind and solar, according to the Oxford Business Group.

It’s studying the feasibility of wind energy and recently installed a 92-megawatt (MW) solar farm in partnership with Lightsource BP, the solar arm of the oil major BP, Shell and others.

Still, the nation’s energy minister, Stuart Young, expects Trinidad and Tobago’s production and use of natural gas to continue. Young told Cipher the country sees natural gas as the “cleanest fossil fuel” that will become even cleaner as carbon capture technology improves.

Going forward, Trinidad and Tobago could produce clean hydrogen made with natural gas paired with carbon capture and hydrogen-derived ammonia, a key ingredient in fertilizer and a potential fuel source itself, said Young.

Currently, the country is studying the potential use of abandoned oil wells to store captured CO2 and exploring the potential of making hydrogen using some of its new renewable energy resources.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of the chart of Guyana’s oil production had the wrong label for the y-axis; the label should be thousands of barrels per day, not millions.