Oil companies were rattled in 2011 when a minor oil spill by Chevron prompted Brazilian prosecutors to seek nearly $20 billion in damages and file criminal charges against executives. The charges were ultimately dropped, and Chevron agreed to pay $42 million to settle the suits in 2013.
Shell points to its 103-year presence in Brazil as evidence it can navigate the nation's risks. Its partner in dozens of deep-water prospects is Brazil's state-controlled oil company Petróleo Brasileiro SA, also known as Petrobras.
The company has been mired in a sweeping corruption scandal for almost three years. Now, burdened with the global oil industry's largest debt pile, it has been forced to cut capital spending by more than two-thirds for the 2017-2021 period.
Even so, Petrobras has steadily brought down development costs, an important consideration for Shell as it looks to capitalize on its Brazilian assets on the cheap.
The first well Petrobras drilled in the oil-rich pre-salt layer on Brazil's continental shelf took 310 days. Now it can drill and develop a well in fewer than 90. Rigs can cost around $400,000 a day.
"It is huge savings," Petrobras Chief Executive Pedro Parente said in an interview.
Shell executives note that Petrobras brought more than a million barrels a day of oil-pumping capacity online within a decade of discovering reserves -- something no other company has done.
"They are the leading deep-water operator in the world," Mr. Van Beurden said. "We are No. 2, but they are No. 1."
Shell is part of a consortium developing the giant Libra discovery in 6,500 feet of water 105 miles southeast of Rio de Janeiro, estimated to hold up to 12 billion barrels of oil. Instead of tackling it and other enormous oil deposits with a 20-year view to their lifespan, Shell and its partners are plotting how fields can be pumped in stages as a way to produce oil faster.
Since Brazil's colossal deep-water potential is already surpassing expectations -- wells in the most-promising areas are yielding around 30% more than predicted -- fewer wells need to be drilled. Rather than erecting a giant steel platform to pump new wells there, Shell is helping fund half a dozen midsize floating platforms that will start to launch later this year.
Mr. Van Beurden said he is optimistic that Shell's Brazilian oil output can help boost the company's world-wide deep-water production past 900,000 barrels a day by around 2020. The company's drive for more oil in the Gulf has already helped boost deep-water production by 50% since the end of 2015 to 725,000 barrels a day.
"We are sitting on the best acreage in the world," he said. "These are the cash engines for the next decade."
Write to Sarah Kent at [email protected] and Paul Kiernan at [email protected]