Kamla Floats Guyana Help for Trinidad Refinery

(Stabroek News, 2.Sep.2018) — Trinidad Opposition Leader Kamla Persad Bissessar has raised the prospect of Guyana oil being used to rescue the beleaguered Petrotrin refinery but Prime Minister Keith Rowley last evening said the aged facility had no reasonable prospect.

Defending the decision by his government to close the over 100- year-old refinery, Rowley yesterday said he had no choice as the climbing debt was too much to saddle his country’s taxpayers with.

“Petrotrin was overburdened with debt. The net debt at financial year-end 2015 amounted to TT$11.4 billion,” Rowley told the twin-island nation in an address which was live streamed.

According to the Trinidadian Prime Minister, “Left as it is, Petrotrin will require an immediate TT$25 billion cash injection just to stay alive” and “there is no way that the company can find this money” as “no financier will lend it because the company simply will not be able to repay such an additional loan.”

He believes that it would be more feasible for the country to focus on exploration and production and export the 40,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day it produces and import the 25,000 barrels it needs for consumption.

“Today with a refining capacity of 140,000 barrels per day, the local production available for refining is 40,000 barrels. We really depend, mostly, on a daily importation of 100,000 barrels per day, which we refine at a significant loss.”

He would later add, “We consume less than 25,000 (barrels) of refined products. It makes far more sense to export the 40,000 that we produce and import what we need. Each barrel will be sold externally on the open market.”

Last week Tuesday it was announced that Petrotrin’s refining and marketing operations would be shuttered. With TT$8 billion in losses in the past five years and a bullet payment of US$850 million due in 2019, Petrotrin chairman Wilfred Espinet had said that terminating its refining and marketing operations and retrenching 1,700 permanent and casual employees was the only way to save the company after 100 years of operations in the industry. Petrotrin also owes the Trinidad Government more than TT$3 billion in taxes and royalties.

Rowley’s position last evening came even as that country’s former Prime Minister, Persad Bissessar called on him to pursue negotiations with Guyana to refine its oil there in order to save the company.

“I understand Guyana has found another well … can we not group in some way and find a way to work together as a CARICOM where we can help them refine their oil,”  she told reporters on Saturday at her Legal Clinic Siparia Constituency Office and which was reported by the Trinidadian newspaper Newsday. Guyana won’t begin pumping oil before 2020.

“I am calling on him to let good sense prevail to be very cautious in making such a drastic and dangerous move, this will have a ripple effect throughout the economy and the country…of course they (Guyana) will build their own refinery but we have one and many of the units in the refinery at Petrotrin are new, so a lot of money has been invested on the refinery side and now they are shutting it down. It is total nonsense,” she added.

Currently, it is still unclear what the Guyana Government would do with its share – 12.5%  – of profit oil from 2020 onwards, from its agreement with ExxonMobil but one government official said that several options are being explored.

One Minister yesterday said that it “Is an ongoing discussion and several workshops and engagements have been held. The options are to ask Exxon or to market, do our own marketing or take our share in kind and send it for refining somewhere. Several proposals have been received and the final decision-making process will be guided by the Department of Energy.”

Stake

Sources have told this newspaper that it has been suggested to the government that Guyana “takes a stake in the Petrotrin refinery and in this way acquire a strategic asset.” In that way, according to one source, Guyana could have its share of oil from the agreement with ExxonMobil and affiliates refined closer to home and secure jobs for persons in both countries.

But while it is still too early to tell what the Guyana and Trinidad governments will decide, a source said, “Guyana may gain a controlling or sizeable share and develop refining capacity and meet many of the outcomes from having a refinery without having to pay as much. Additionally, we can ensure that a percentage of labour is Guyanese who will have to be trained and also we can address some CARICOM integration goals.”

Last evening, the Trinidad PM  made no mention of Guyana or even hinted at restarting the refinery although he said that Petrotrin’s refinery assets would be placed in a separate company.

“We largely operate a business that is largely dependent on foreign oil inputs. All the other refineries in the region that had this same business model, Aruba, Curacao and St Croix have long since closed because they saw it as not a viable business,” Rowley said.

“Our Pointe-à-Pierre refinery is 101 years old and has reached the end of its commercially viable days it is now at a state where it is haemorrhaging cash and the cost of rehabilitating it is way more than its potential to ever be potentially viable, competitive or sustainable. The only commercially sound and viable option is to close the refinery, export Petrotrin’s oil and to import products,” he also noted.

The government of the US Virgin Islands last month approved a proposed US$1.4-billion operating agreement between itself and Arclight Capital Partners LLC, Boston, to restart the former Hovensa Refinery at Limetree Bay, St Croix. The refinery is scheduled for opening by the end of 2019. With an initial crude processing capacity of about 200,000 barrels per day according to the USVI government, the investment is expected to create 1,200 local jobs during construction and as many as 700 permanent jobs upon restarting the facility. The Hovensa refinery was a joint venture between Hess Corporation and Petroleos de Venezuela until it closed in 2012.

Rowley said that the Petrotrin model has outlived its usefulness and it was now time to accept that and equip the company to stand the test of the ever changing global economy.

“Petrotrin’s model has become obsolete and uncompetitive and its operating practices are inefficient. The company was nowhere in line with global industry standards and best practices. In fact the company’s operations are identified as being among the most inefficient in the world. The company if left as it is would continue to operate at a loss at a rate of aboutTT$2B a year. It is not a viable option, to do so is to saddle future generations with a huge debt burden. If not dealt with now, the negative effects will get worst and it simply cannot work. To break even would cost TT$7B and would involve significant staff cuts and an ultra-low sulphur refinery,”

He believed that the “Gross mismanagement of the national patrimony within the last decade” such as many cost overruns and delays in projects for the company  was part of the reason government is now saddled with the large debt.

A committee, headed by TT’s former Energy Ministry Permanent Secretary, Selwyn Lashley, had reported on the dismal state of the company since 2016 and the report showed that in addition to receiving huge subsidies from the state, Petrotrin was not paying its fair share of taxes collected to government.

“Taxes and royalties owed to Government amounted to $3.1 billion as at February 28, 2017. The company was not complying with the tax laws and even when it collected taxes from companies that paid their taxes to Petrotrin for onward transmission to the Ministry of Finance, Petrotrin was huffing and utilizing those monies in its own operations.”

“Money that should be turned over to the Ministry of Finance is held within the company and that is illegal,” he added.

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Venezuela Petrol Prices Need to Rise to Stop Smuggling

(Reuters, Deisy Buitrago and Brian Ellsworth, 14.Aug.2018) – Venezuela’s heavily subsidised domestic gasoline prices should rise to international levels to avoid billions of dollars in annual losses due to fuel smuggling, president Nicolas Maduro has said.

“Gasoline must be sold at an international price to stop smuggling to Colombia and the Caribbean,” Mr Maduro said in a televised address on Monday.

Venezuela, like most oil producing countries, has for decades subsidised fuel as a benefit to citizens.

But the country’s fuel prices have remained practically flat for years despite soaring hyperinflation the International Monetary Fund has projected would reach 1,000,000 per cent this year.

For the price of a cup of coffee, a driver can fill the tank of a small SUV nearly 9,000 times

That means that for the price of a cup of coffee, a driver can now fill the tank of a small SUV nearly 9,000 times.

Smugglers can make considerable profits reselling fuel in neighbouring countries.

Mr Maduro said the government would still provide “direct subsidies” to citizens holding the “fatherland card,” a state-issued identification card that the government uses to provide bonuses and track use of social services.

He said the subsidy was only available to those who registered their cars in a vehicle census being conducted by the state.

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Venezuela Petrol To Rise to Int’l Levels

(Energy Analytics Institute, Ian Silverman, 13.Aug.2018) — The price of Venezuela’s subsidized petrol, long one of the cheapest in world, is set to rise.

Effective August 20, 2018, the price of Venezuela’s petrol will cost the same as in international markets, reported PDVSA in an official statement, citing comments from Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro.

The decision to raise the price of petrol comes as Venezuela tries to reduce annual loses estimated at $18 billion due to the contraband of the product to neighboring countries from Aruba to Colombia, among others.

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Citgo Appoints Aruba Refinery Executives

(Reuters, 28.Jun.2018) – Citgo Petroleum, the U.S. refining arm of Venezuela’s state-run oil company PDVSA, said it appointed two senior executives to new positions as it works to refurbish an idled Aruba refinery.

Luis Marquez was named vice president and general manager at the refinery, a 235,000-barrel-per-day plant in San Nicholas that has been awaiting an overhaul. Edward Oduber also was appointed interim on-site project manager for the refurbishment of the refinery, during Phase II of the project, the company said.

Citgo in 2016 signed an up to 25-year lease with the government of Aruba to refurbish and operate the plant as part of a $685 million project. Earlier this year, it had slowed work on the overhaul due to a lack of credit.

Marquez, who replaced interim general manager Raymond Buckley, began his career in 1981 at the Amuay Refinery in Venezuela and has held positions at PDVSA International Refining, PDVSA Argentina, PDVSA Ecuador, and Petrocedeño, the company said.

Edward began at the San Nicolas refinery in Aruba in 1990, and held positions with Citgo Aruba, Valero Aruba, and Coastal Aruba.

Citgo said that Joe Crawford Jr will continue as general manager maintenance and operations overseeing the operating portions of the facility along with the loading facilities, terminal and distribution network. (Reporting by Gary McWilliams; Editing by Amrutha Gayathri)

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Venezuela’s Oil Meltdown Defies Belief

(Nick Cunningham, OilPrice.com, 6.Jun.2018) -- Venezuela might have to declare force majeure on its oil exports as production plunges and its ports are unable to ship enough crude. The ongoing meltdown in Venezuela’s oil sector could tighten the oil market more than expected.

Reuters reported Tuesday that Venezuela is considering declaring force majeure, a legal declaration made in extraordinary circumstances to basically get out of contractual obligations. In other words, Venezuela’s PDVSA is essentially prepared to say that it can’t supply the oil that it promised.

The utter collapse of the country’s oil production is obviously a big factor in PDVSA’s inability to ship enough oil. Output is down below 1.5 million barrels per day and falling fast.

But the tanker traffic at a handful of its ports has created unexpected bottlenecks, which have slowed loadings. Clogged ports are the direct result of the seizure of operations on several Caribbean islands by ConocoPhillips last month. The American oil major sought to enforce an arbitration award, laying claim to a series of storage facilities on the islands of Bonaire, Curacao and Aruba.

Those assets were crucial to PDVSA’s operations – in fact, they had become even more important as PDVSA’s facilities in Venezuela deteriorated. They had the ability to service very large crude carriers (VLCCs), and were important for storing and blending PDVSA’s oil, and preparing it for export.

Since ConocoPhillips tried to take over those facilities, PDVSA has tried to shift operations back to its ports in Venezuela. But those terminals are in very bad shape, and cannot make up for the loss of the Caribbean facilities. Reuters reported that there are more than 70 tankers sitting off the Venezuelan coast.

Reuters also says that PDVSA told customers that they need to send ships that are able to handle ship-to-ship loadings, since they can’t service enough ships at the ports. If customers fail to do that, or fail to accept those terms, PDVSA could declare force majeure. Reuters says most customers are balking at the demand since there is no third party supervision, plus the added cost of ship-to-ship transfers is also something customers are not willing to take on.

It is no surprise that Venezuela has fallen short on the shipments it has promised, but the figures are staggering. In April, Venezuela only shipped 1.49 million barrels per day of oil and fuels, or 665,000 bpd below what it had contracted, according to Reuters. That means that some customers are missing out on cargo. For instance, in April, PDVSA shorted its subsidiary Citgo nearly all of what it had promised – 273,000 bpd.

The problems for Venezuela continue to mount, and the news that it is considering force majeure points to a more catastrophic decline in production and exports. PDVSA "in the best case only has about 695,000 b/d of crude supply available for export in June," a marketing division executive within the company told Argus Media.

It seems unlikely that the sudden decline in exports will be resolved in any reasonable timeframe. It isn’t just a matter of easing bottlenecks at the ports. For one, it isn’t clear that PDVSA can handle the necessary volumes from its existing export terminals.

More importantly, upstream oil production continues to plummet, and refining and processing are also in freefall. Venezuela’s heavy oil needs to be upgraded before it can be exported, but at least three PDVSA upgraders are in terrible shape, and the Petropiar upgrader, which PDVSA runs jointly with Chevron, is offline for maintenance. That is also the site overseen by Chevron employees that were detained by Venezuelan security services a few months ago, putting a chill on operations.

“[PDVSA] has a critical structural problem that cannot be fixed in a few weeks or even a few months, because the core problem is that Venezuela's crude production has dropped far beneath the volumes we are contracted to deliver,” a company executive told Argus. “We simply aren't producing enough crude, and we don't have the cash flow to compensate by purchasing crude from third parties to meet our supply commitments. Our greatest operational concern right now is that production continues to fall and our export supply volumes also will continue to decline as a result.”

As a result, the force majeure on shipments seems unavoidable, unless that is, customers simply take a haircut and accept lower volumes. A PDVSA source told Argus Media that companies that don’t accept lower volumes could see all of their shipments suspended. That sounds like a threat, but it is PDVSA that is in the state of crisis, not buyers from China, India or the U.S.

Customers are already reporting problems with shipments. A Japanese trading house told S&P Global Platts this week that it has been unable to load up on Venezuelan oil under a loan-for-oil deal. "There is no cargo made available to lift," said the source.

Several diplomats from China and India told Argus that refiners from their countries are looking elsewhere for oil shipments in the months ahead, on the expectation that cargoes from Venezuela continue to decline. Independent refiners from China are looking at heavy crude sources such as Mexico’s Maya, Colombia’s Castilla, and Canada’s Cold Lake Blend, according to S&P Global Platts.

PDVSA could cite U.S. sanctions as a justification for force majeure, and while that could potentially provide some legal basis for nixing shipments, from the oil market perspective, it makes no difference one way or another why exports are declining, or who is at fault. All that matters is that supply is falling fast, and to the extent that PDVSA can’t keep up with its obligations, it is a worrying sign that even the most pessimistic scenarios for Venezuelan output could turn out to be too hopeful.

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Mange Infested Dog Roams PDVSA’s Paraguana Refining Complex

Amuay refinery in Venezuela. Source: Pietro D. Pitts

(Energy Analytics Institute, Pietro D. Pitts, 14.Sep.2016) – On a brief taxi ride from Punto Fijo’s Josefa Camejo International Airport to the main highway that crosses this city and connects to one of the many refining complex entrances here, a scrawny dog with mange can be seen emerging from an endless pile of discarded trash.

In this small refining town broken beer bottles, dirty diapers, and discarded personal items cling to trees and bushes as far as the eye can see in either direction along the short stretch of highway that separates the two massive refineries here: Amuay and Cardón. The refineries comprise the lion’s share of the processing capacity at PDVSA’s 971,000 barrel-a-day Paraguana Refining Complex, also commonly known as the CRP by its Spanish acronym. The CRP refineries combined with three others spread across this country have produced cumulative financial losses of $53 billion in the last eight years. Definitely not chump change.

Venezuela is home to a wealth of natural resources from gold to iron ore and holds the world’s eighth-largest natural gas reserves and the largest crude oil reserves, according to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy. Yet, images of the immediate surroundings of the CRP paint a different financial storyboard about the well-being of Venezuela’s all important oil sector – which generates 96 percent of the country’s foreign export earnings.

Despite Venezuela’s claim to fame in terms of the size of its oil reserves, the South American country has been reduced to importing refined products because its refineries can’t meet local demand. The country’s refining sector is in a virtual state of emergency due to low processing rates, numerous unplanned plant stoppages, as well as accidents and injuries that state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. prefers to not report, according to oil union officials here. All summed up, PDVSA’s refining sector – especially within Venezuela – is a financial drain on the company as operating losses continue to mount year after year.

Venezuela – a founding member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries or OPEC — is engulfed in an economic crisis that started way before oil prices began their long downward trend. Political uncertainty, an ongoing threat of asset expropriations as well as currency and price controls have only helped to starve the capital-intense oil sector here of necessary foreign investments. PDVSA, as the Caracas-based company is known, continues to lack the necessary cash to properly revive the country’s oil sector in its majority partnership role, while local Venezuelan oil companies are few and in between and often lack the financial firepower of many of their international peers.

Many Venezuelan-based economists from Datanálisis President Luis Vicente León to Ecoanalitica Director Asdrubal Oliveros blame part of the economic crisis on the failure by former populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to divert financial resources to the country’s private sector importers and the all-important upstream, midstream and downstream sectors during his tenure from 1999-2013 amid robust oil prices. In general, PDVSA’s problems mirror Venezuela’s economic crisis. The country’s economy has not fared any better under the presidential tenure of Nicolas Maduro, the man hand-picked by Chávez to succeed him prior to his untimely death in 2013. By most people’s accounts, considering the scarcities here of everything from milk to basic medicines, widespread looting, and runaway crime, things are much worst.

Oil-dependent Venezuela continues to rely heavily on its exploration and production or upstream sector to generate the bulk of its petroleum sector revenues. However, Venezuela’s oil output appears to be on an unstoppable decline, reaching 2,095,000 barrels per day in July of 2016 compared to 2,361,000 barrels per day in 2014, according to Organization of Petroleum Exporting Country’s Monthly Oil Market Report, citing secondary sources. Data from direct communications is just slightly more optimistic. Nevertheless, the downward continues.

FINANCIAL IMPACT

Oil workers in red work overalls can be seen everywhere in the streets of Punto Fijo, either hailing taxis or waiting in the shade of trees for public transportation. Due to the ongoing economic crisis that has also affected Venezuela’s transportation industry – like countless other industries here – many cars and taxis in these parts and others in this resource-rich country don’t have air conditioning and/or visually lack some part or another such as a rearview or side mirror, working locks, a speedometer or a functioning trunk. The market for used tires, or anything used, is booming in Venezuela as new tire imports have come to a virtual halt.

Inside the CRP complex – physically off limits to visitors without permission from PDVSA but very visible through the wired fences — the scene within is arguably not much better, as years of under-investment on maintenance, upgrades and safety protocols by the state oil company have unfortunately left the refineries and the grounds similarly forsaken. Against a backdrop of a country in the midst of an ongoing political crisis, many refinery workers here say a combination of 12-16 hours work days, a lack of employee benefits and arguably the lowest salaries for refinery workers anywhere in the world (in dollar terms) has also taken a toll on them as well as their colleagues.

Whether the refineries or the workers are in worst condition, is a judgment call, but at first glance they both appear to be on their last legs.

In the last eight years, PDVSA’s refining, trade and supply division accumulated net losses in each of the consecutive years since 2008, which was the last time the division reported a positive gain from its combined operations in Venezuela. All tallied, the division accumulated losses of $53 billion during 2008-2015, according to data compiled from PDVSA’s financial reports.

“With a cash crunch they have focused all efforts in the upstream where you make the money,” said Francisco J. Monaldi, Ph.D. and Fellow in Latin American Energy Policy & Lecturer in Energy Economics at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in an e-mailed response to questions. “The lack of human resources adds to the lack of investment to generate the operational difficulties.”

Refining sector stoppages and costly repairs are generating large production and economic losses for PDVSA, said oil union representative Larry López during a late afternoon sit down chat at a run-down restaurant just two blocks from the Amuay refinery.

Venezuela doesn’t need refineries to be a major exporting country, former PDVSA President Rafael Ramírez told me in 2014 during a company-sponsored media trip to visit the CRP on the anniversary of the deadly explosion at Amuay that left at least 48 people dead. To this day, it is unclear if those comments justify the lack of attention that has been given to the country’s refining sector even now under the leadership of Stanford-trained Eulogio Del Pino.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry, the clearing house for questions for all of the country’s ministries, and media officials with PDVSA and the Venezuelan Oil Ministry did not reply to emails seeking comment on the company’s refining sector strategy or general comments for this article. Venezuela’s newly elected Petroleum Chamber President was also unavailable to comment on this article.

“Our refineries have always produced products to cover demand in the domestic market as well as the Caribbean. To export to the US and Europe we really don’t need to have refineries,” said Carlos Rossi, president of Caracas-based consulting firm EnergyNomics and formerly an economist with the Venezuelan Hydrocarbons Association or AVHI, in an interview in Caracas.

“Because the refineries have been seen as a low priority, PDVSA has focused more attention on the Faja,” said Rossi referring to the Hugo Chávez Oil Belt, formerly known as the Orinoco Heavy Oil Belt, home to one of the largest non-conventional oil deposits in the world.

PDVSA’s total hydrocarbon workforce mushroomed during 2000-2015 as the company stressed more importance on political affiliation and less on university or technical experience, said Eddie Ramírez, the director of Gente del Petróleo and a former PDVSA employee, in a phone interview from Caracas. At year-end 2015, PDVSA employed 114,259 direct hydrocarbon sector workers, up from just 42,267 when Chávez rose to power in 1999, according to PDVSA data.

PDVSA’s refining sector, which employed 9,391 workers in 2015, represented just 8.2 percent of the company’s total workforce in that year. In 2010, just 3,584 workers were employed in the refining sector, which represented a mere 3.8 percent of PDVSA’s total workforce.

Given PDVSA’s cash problems and its inability to generate positive free cash flow, the company’s plans to build six new multi-billion dollar upgraders, boost oil production and refining capacity to 6,000,000 barrels per day and 1,800,000 barrels per day respectively by 2019 seem to be optimistic and represent a major challenge for the state oil company.

REFINING CAPACITY

PDVSA owns six refineries in Venezuela, which the company reports are strategically located to supply refined products to its major consumers. The refineries – which had a total combined processing capacity of 1,303,000 barrels per day, as of year-end 2015 – produce a product slate including but limited to: 91 and 95 grade gasolines, jet and diesel fuel, light naphtha, liquefied petroleum gas, solvents and residuals.

Due to a combination of problems, the six refineries were just processing a combined 616,000 barrels per day in August 2016, translating into an average utilization for PDVSA’s domestic refineries of 47.3 percent, said Ivan Freites, an oil union official with the United Federation of Venezuelan Oil Workers or FUTPV, which represents a large portion of PDVSA’s workers, during an interview in Punto Fijo.

Two refineries are located in Venezuela’s western Falcon state including: Amuay, with a 645,000 barrel-a-day processing capacity; Cardón, with a 310,000 barrel-a-day capacity; while the smaller Bajo Grande is located in Zulia state, with a 16,000 barrel-a-day capacity. Together, the three refineries make up the CRP, according to PDVSA’s annual report for 2015, with a product slate destined 55 percent for the domestic market and 45 percent for the export market.

More centrally located is the El Palito refinery in Carabobo state with a 140,000 barrel-a-day capacity while the remaining two refineries located in Venezuela’s eastern Anzoátegui state include Puerto La Cruz, with an 187,000 barrel-a-day capacity and the smaller San Roque, with a 5,000 barrel-a-day capacity.

In 2015, Venezuela’s domestic refining sector reported average utilization rates of 66.2 percent, according to PDVSA’s operational and financial data from last year. This compares to an average utilization rate of 70.6 percent in 2014 and an average utilization rate of 72.8 percent during 2011-2014.

The CRP has suffered much more deterioration and lower utilization rates than the other refineries. Average utilization rates at the complex reached just 60.5 percent in 2015, down compared to 72 percent in 2011 and an average 67.7 percent during 2011-2014, according to PDVSA data, which differs to what oil union officials report.

“Average utilization rates at the CRP were just 53 percent in 2015,” said Freites, a stocky, long-time oil union official. “The complex is damaged to the point that it almost makes better sense to build new refineries than to fix the incalculable problems that exist.”

In contrast, average utilization rates at El Palito reached 71.4 percent in 2015, down from 90.7 percent in 2011 and an average 89.5 percent during 2011-2014 while at Puerto La Cruz rates reached 93.2 percent in 2015, up from 88 percent in 2011 and an average 88.6 percent during 2011-2014, according to PDVSA.

Figures reported by PDVSA are always overly positive and extremely optimistic, said Freites, 53, during an early happy hour brunch which included Venezuelan ‘tequeños’, a special mix here of fried cornmeal with cheese on the inside accompanied with another popular import here: whisky.

From oil towns in Midland, Texas to Maracaibo to Monagas and Punto Fijo in Venezuela, oil men have at least one thing in common: their love for food and the typical companions Grants, Chivas, and the rest of the supporting cast. However, the economic crisis here has forced many oilmen to settle for whatever is available at the kitchen table. With bottled water sometimes unavailable, Johnnie Walker becomes a name to trust.

PDVSA data differs significantly from that provided by oil union officials here and other international agencies due to the opaque operating and reporting nature of the state oil company. A quick comparison of Venezuela’s production figures as reported by PDVSA and Venezuela’s Oil Ministry as compared to figures reported by OPEC in its monthly reports or even BP in its yearly statistical review serve to prove the point.

Cash-strapped PDVSA recently reiterated plans to boost its domestic refining capacity to 1,800,000 barrels per day by 2019 but has not detailed plans for its existing refineries – which continue to process at less than optimal levels – and has been quiet about plans to build new refining capacity. Only the Puerto La Cruz refinery is known to be undergoing a deep conversion process aimed at boosting its ability to process heavier Venezuelan crudes, according to PDVSA.

Recent agreements signed by PDVSA with authorities from the governments of Aruba, Venezuela and Citgo Aruba related to the restart of a 209,000 barrel-per-day refinery located in San Nicolas, Aruba point to potential issues PDVSA may have building new refineries or even six planned new upgraders, a special type of refinery, due to financial constraints whereby at first glance it appears easier to buy refining capacity than build it from scratch.

It is not a priority to build refineries since it is much better to invest in upstream activities to maximize your limited resources, said Monaldi, also the founding director and a professor at the Center for Energy and the Environment at IESA in Venezuela. New refineries are not great moneymakers and require low capital cost to make any money, he said.

CRP REALITIES

Just a handful of streets separate the Amuay refinery from the Las Piedras fishing neighborhood. Not far away, rusted out American gas-guzzlers like the Ford Maverick and even the Ford F-1, seemly pulled straight off the set of the 1970’s U.S. television show Sanford and Son, can be seen littering the narrow streets here as well as the ones behind Cardón refinery in the neighborhood that bears its name, Punta Cardón. Residents of the latter neighborhood, basically live under the constant flare of gas and whatever else might come from the refinery that is practically in their backyards.

All of PDVSA’s Venezuelan refineries seem to suffer from some type of operational deficiency. At any given time and sometimes at the same various units from different refineries are down for unplanned repairs ranging from the Amuay flexicoker, alkylation, and catalytic units; the Cardón distillation units; the three Puerto La Cruz atmospheric distillation units to the El Palito FCC unit, thus, drastically reducing domestic processing capacity and output, said Frietes. On a number of occasions in the past two years complete operations at PDVSA’s principal refineries have been halted due to operational issues.

Reduced utilization rates at the CRP have created shortages of oil derivatives including unfinished oils, lubricants, finished motor gasoline and special naphthas. As a result, Venezuela is importing more derivatives such as products for gasoline as well as light oils from the U.S. and even far off countries such as Russia and Algeria to mix with its heavy and extra-heavy crude oils produced in the Faja, even as it continues to offer oil to regional neighbors ranging from Cuba to Nicaragua under attractive financing terms.

Despite the need to import oil and products, Venezuelan oil exports continued to member countries belonging to regional initiatives ranging from the Cuba-Venezuela Cooperation Agreement (CIC) to PetroCaribe but declined 6.6 percent to 185,000 barrels per day in 2015 compared to 198,000 barrels per day in 2014, according to PDVSA data. The volumes in 2015 were down 27.3 percent compared to 255,000 barrels per day supplied to member countries in 2009.

“PDVSA continues to give away oil while in Venezuela inventories of gasoline, gasoil, diesel, LPG and lubricants are insufficient to cover domestic demand,” said Freites, a stern critic of PDVSA.

Operating deficiencies in Venezuela have created export opportunities for refiners along the North American Gulf Coast. U.S. net imports of oil and refined products from Venezuela ranging from distillate fuel oil to MTBE (oxygenate) averaged 751,000 barrels a day in the 12-month period ended June 2016 compared to 711,000 barrels a day in the same year-ago period, according to data posted to the U.S.-based Energy Information Administration’s website. However, U.S. net imports of the same products from Venezuela averaged 1,590,000 barrels-a-day in the 12-month period ended June 2001 in the early years of the Chávez government.

Productivity at the CRP is down due to the increase in workers and the decline in output, said a former PDVSA refinery safety manager who worked for 29-years at the company. He didn’t want to reveal his name since he still does contract work for PDVSA in Punto Fijo and feared retaliation from the company. Oil workers must be oil workers and not politically divided like today as it is affecting the productivity of the employees and the company, he said during an interview at a small building in downtown Punto Fijo which serves as the local office of the FUTPV.

“It is still politically hard to justify massive Imports. But the economics are very clear. In the long run, if you can sustain international market prices in the domestic market you may be able to open the downstream to private investment,” said Monaldi.

REPLACEMENT PARTS

Grade school kids and university students blend into the scenery of an oil town gone bust. Many will never reach PDVSA’s professional ranks unless they have connections within the company and/or support the socialist ideas, or at least those expressed by Maduro and his government. More than anything, PDVSA refinery workers in faded red work overalls dominate the landscape in Punto Fijo and the surrounding towns seemingly unaffected by hot weather, strong wind gusts and refineries constantly emitting gas and other substances into the air. What has affected them is the continued economic crisis and low wages, many say here.

Under the sweltering sun, improvisations are the order of the day at the CRP for many refining workers frequently forced to scramble to solve recurring small problems turned into major ones due to the lack of basic replacement parts. The practice of using emergency stapling techniques to fix routine vapor leaks at processing units, or product leaks along pipelines, is commonplace nowadays, says Freites, who is the spokesperson for many refining and oil union workers not willing to go on record due to fear of retaliation or work dismissal from PDVSA.

Similar scenes are said to resonate at the Puerto La Cruz and El Palito refineries, said José Bodas, another oil union official, in a telephone interview from Carabobo state.

PDVSA is using stapling methods to fix pipeline and unit leaks instead of properly fixing or repairing them due to a lack of funds to procure the necessary replacement parts, said the former PDVSA safety manager. PDVSA is more reactive than preventative and is conducting more corrective maintenance than preventative maintenance due to the lack of financial resources. It’s not necessarily a money thing but just the way PDVSA works today, he said.

Lackluster security measures to protect the PDVSA refineries and workers have allowed crime incidents to edge up within the complexes’ gates. Stolen work bags and purses, missing clothing and other personal items and car break-ins are daily work hazards beyond those related to working in a domestic refining sector where accidents, sadly enough, are more the norm than in many other countries with refining operations. In the country with the highest murder rate in the world, according to the website WorldAtlas.com, not even the confines of the refinery complex are safe enough to shield workers from the realities on the streets in Punto Fijo, Ciudad Ojeda, Anaco and other major oil and gas towns across Venezuela.

Safety is no longer a priority for PDVSA as funds are being spent haphazardly on non-necessary projects, said the former PDVSA safety manager with his salt-and-pepper mustache and Italian surname. He says many current PDVSA bosses only respond to accidents when they are officially reported by the media.

On its part, PDVSA claims there were just 154 total injuries at the CRP, El Palito and Puerto La Cruz refineries in 2015. This compares to 173 in 2014, 276 in 2012, and 298 in 2010, according to PDVSA data in its social and environmental statements on its website. Still, union officials here say the numbers don’t reflect the real case scenario since a lot of accidents and injuries go undocumented.

As the sun falls over the horizon, workers use their mobile phones in some areas of the CRP seemly unaware of the work hazards. Thieves that regularly enter the complex via the various gate openings to rob copper, bronze, nickel as well as other materials and equipment, also rob workers of their mobile phones whenever possible. The resale market for mobile phone parts is big in Venezuela amid an economic crisis that has impacted not just food importers, but the telecommunications and airline industries as well, among others.

MULTIPLIER EFFECT

The multiplier effect on this town and surrounding communities can visibly be seen in the fishing regions of Punto Fijo from Las Piedras to Los Taques where white and blue collar oil workers in the good ole days would be seen almost everywhere eating and taking in the sun with family and coworkers or clients. That’s not the scene here anymore. Local mayors have for years promised money to fishing communities and fishermen in the region but many, like other family members, remain unemployed. Many have turned to crime to rob and steal things they can resell to get basics like food or medicines for their families.

“Whatever was taken over from the transnational companies doesn’t work here,” said Jaime Antonio Diaz, 44, during an interview at a lightless restaurant in Los Taques. “If the Fourth Republic was bad, then the Fifth Republic is the worst,” he said as a stray cat entered the premise through an entrance door kept open to let in fresh air and natural light.

Diaz’s comments refer to the two most recent republics in Venezuela. The Fourth Republic was the period in Venezuelan history marked by the Punto Fijo Pact in 1958 for the acceptance of democratic elections in that year. Nationalization of Venezuela’s oil industry was a point frequently criticized by Chávez as a one of many failures of the Fourth Republic. The Fifth Republic Movement (MVR by its Spanish acronym) was a leftist political party founded in the late 1990s by then-presidential candidate Chávez. It was later dissolved in 2007 to give way to Chávez’s new political party the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

From refinery workers fleeing low pay and increased worksite accidents to unemployed fishermen and engineers driving taxis, Punto Fijo is going through what many say is one of its worst periods in decades.

Within visible distance of the dirt roads of Los Taques nearly 30 or more towering wind power turbines can be seen off the immediate horizon on the return trip from Los Taques to Punto Fijo. Despite the strong winds here, the turbines are not operational and have yet to generate power for commercial or domestic usage, according to Freites, owing to corrupt deals between Venezuelan government officials and the company that supplied the towers. Venezuela – which has long suffered from a natural gas deficit in its industrialized western Zulia state – has plans to use non-associated natural gas production from the Cardón IV offshore project as well as power generated by these turbines to reduce the need to import costly diesel fuel. From the look of things here, it is quite obvious the latter is not something PDVSA officials want to openly talk or brag about. However, it’s safe to assume somebody made a killing on the turbine deal.

While the wind turbine project – like others envisioned in this small country with a population close to 31 million – looks good on paper in the boardroom, the corruption here more often than not turns the project into a financial bonus for some individuals at the costs of local jobs and wasted resources for a country teetering on the brink of financial default.

One thing continues to thrive here: the contraband of fuels. Contraband of cheap Venezuelan gasoline continues to nearby Colombia, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Aruba despite efforts to deter it and a decision by this government to boost gasoline prices in February of 2016 to 6 bolivars a liter from 9.7 centavos. While demand for gasoline has declined in Venezuela due to economic crisis and a higher cost for gasoline, its elevated price is still quite low compared to nearby markets; thus, making it still very attractive for trade internationally.

Large fishing boats – refitted by the Venezuelan military and now under the control of military officers that pose as fishermen – continue to leave the pier near Las Piedras with domestic fuel. These so-called ‘gasoil mafias’ continue to exchange Venezuelan refined products on the high seas in international waters in seemingly another way the military is kept happy and loyal by Maduro and company, according to Rossi, author of the book ‘The Completion of the Oil Era: The Economic Impact (Energy Policies, Politics and Prices).’

DISMAL FUTURE

Barefoot grade school kids with just shorts on, play baseball on the dirt roads and side streets in numerous poor communities in and around Punto Fijo. Using broomsticks and makeshift baseballs, they can be seen enjoying their game despite the extreme poverty they live in and not having gloves. Despite being a Latin American country, baseball, not soccer is the sport of choice here and seen here as the way to rise out of poverty, at least for many males. On the other side, females here dream of being Ms. Venezuela or Ms. World.

“This government only saves itself by changing the model,” said León, referring to what the Maduro government needs to do to stay in power.

Whether the model change comes tomorrow, next year or in 2019, Venezuela’s hydrocarbon sector is in need of drastic changes. However drastic and radical these changes may have to be, investors will continue to keep Venezuela on their radar screens, hoping for a chance to invest in the country with one of the largest resource bases on the planet. However, from the looks of things, with foreign diplomats and oil men continuing to get kidnapped here, Venezuela is not yet ready for the massive return of foreign companies or better yet the foreign companies aren’t ready to return under the existing circumstances.

The recently announced departure of Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfield services company, should serve as a reminder to potential investors about the condition of the oil sector here which still contends with a massive brain drain of national and international talent from companies from Halliburton to Total, Chevron, Statoil and a host of smaller companies lacking the deep pockets to survive without quarterly or sometimes monthly cash flow.

“The low wages continue to produce brain drain and that makes worse the operational problems,” said Monaldi.

Top Venezuelan officials and PDVSA executives blame the economic and petroleum sector crisis here on an economic war waged they say by opposition leaders with the backing of persons and institutions from Bogotá, Miami, Washington and even Madrid. The open denial of internal problems created by widespread mismanagement, errored financial and economic decisions as well as a number of actions including asset expropriations have handcuffed the country’s private sector and brought the all-important petroleum sector to a near halt. That hasn’t stopped other countries from stepping in to fill the void when and where it is possible. Case in point: Algeria just started to supply oil to Cuba amid mounting issues at PDVSA.

The Amuay explosion on August 25, 2012, as regrettable as it was, was an early wake-up call about what PDVSA had (and has) become after more than a decade of so-called socialism. Amid continued corruption at PDVSA and a hydrocarbon sector where funds mysteriously disappear, the financial and economic dreams of a handful or more have smashed the hopes of many in Punto Fijo and all across this major oil producing South American country.

“A lot of people here are changing sides due to the mismanagement of resources by the Chávez and now the Maduro government,” said Ali, a 50-year old taxi driver of an old Toyota Corolla, who requested his last name not be used in this article for fear of retaliation from PDVSA or government officials.

Ali’s sentiment resonates across all parts of this country from many petroleum engineers and other professionals that have left the industry to drive a taxi, wait tables or do anything where the wages are better.

“The sad part of all this is that we could have another August 25th,” said Freites.
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(Editing by Peter Wilson)

Smuggling of Venezuelan Gasoline to Aruba to Continue

(Energy Analytics Institute, Pietro D. Pitts, 1.Oct.2015) – The smuggling of Venezuelan gasoline to Aruba and other countries will continue as long as a large gap between gasoline prices exists, said EnergyNomics President Carlos Rossi in an interview in Houston, Texas.

“Contraband is a way to keep the military happy and loyal. With the increase in government seizures, the smuggling business of smaller smugglers is being affected.”

The Venezuelan government must increase the price of gasoline to halt or slow the smuggling and contraband business. Besides, increasing gasoline prices is good for following reasons: 1) it would be anti-inflationary, like a tax, 2) it solves or helps fiscal deficit, and 3) it assists PDVSA accounts, said Rossi.

“However, an increase in the price of gasoline can be seen as a case of a positive economic policy that will cause negative political backlash.”

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