Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: December 12, 2017
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“In 2006, Rafael Ramírez, the energy minister, gave PDVSA workers a choice: Support President Hugo Chávez, or lose their jobs. The minister also said: "PDVSA is red [the color identified with Chávez's political party], red from top to bottom". Chávez defended Ramírez, saying that public workers should back the "revolution". He added that "PDVSA's workers are with this revolution, and those who aren't should go somewhere else. Go to Miami".

On paper, Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, dwarfing even Saudi Arabia. That, however, hasn’t proven to be any blessing given the way that the country has been imploding since the death of Hugo Chavez. Facing financial meltdown and a plunging currency, the government of Nicolas Maduro is desperately holding on to power. State oil firm PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. or Petroleum of Venezuela) used to be the country’s cash cow; now it is the main player in the ongoing Venezuelan drama.

That corruption is endemic to PDVSA is unsurprising, but the company was also once one of the better-run national oil companies, ranking alongside Petronas, Saudi Aramco and China’s CNPC in a 2007 Financial Times article titled ‘The New Seven Sisters’. This was largely because the company was allowed to operate independently, with the government content with a state-patronage arrangement. PDVSA flourished; establishing an American downstream arm Citgo, creating a Caribbean refining industry in Aruba and Curacao and shipping much of the heavy, sour crudes the US Gulf refining industry was based around.

Last week, Nicolas Maduro had the former heads of the oil ministry and PDVSA arrested on charges on corruption, installing Major General Manuel Quevedo – an energy neophyte – at the top of PDVSA. He then had Congress rubber stamp authority for him to review all oil contracts, service agreements and executive positions at PDVSA. Scores of PDVSA executives have been arrested – some on legitimate charges – and now Maduro wants to replace the plunging bolivar and circumvent US sanctions with a cryptocurrency called ‘petro’, backed by its vast oil reserves. Signs that the government is backed into a corner.

For the last year, PDVSA has been approaching international friends to seek lifelines from mounting debts. From Russia’s Rosneft, it gained some US$6 billion in cash for shares in Citgo and crude volumes, which allowed PDVSA to narrowly avoid default. From India to China, PDVSA is offering up its only asset – crude oil – in a desperate attempt to seek oil-for-cash loans. But there are more dangerous signs. Output is down to a 28-year low.  Key indicators – active rigs, exports, crude quality – are declining at an ‘alarming rate’. Venezuela’s crude imports – light crude used to dilute its heavy domestic crude like that in the Orinoco Belt – have plunged from a usual average of 100 kb/d to 40 kb/d in 1H17 to almost zero in November. Forget about selling oil, PDVSA can’t even produce oil at the moment. And it is fast running out of friends. Sinopec is suing over unpaid debts. Curacao is cutting PDVSA off from access to its refinery, turning to the Chinese. Even Russia is losing patience. The implosion of Venezuela and PDVSA would be a major shock to the market, and sadly, one that is looking more and more certain by the day.

Infographic: Venezuela’s oil industry at a glance 

  • Proven oil reserves: 297 billion barrels (as of Jan 2014) vs Saudi Arabia’s 268 billion barrels (unchanged since 1988)
  • Oil production: 2.3 mmb/d (October 2014) vs 1.85 mmb/d (October 2017)
  • Oil imports: 120 kb/d (October 2014) vs 25 kb/d (October 2017)
  • Oil exports: 2 mmb/d (October 2014) vs 1.5 mmb/d (October 2017)
  • Exports by destination: USA (40%), Caribbean (31%), China (10%), Other Asia (9%), Other World (10%)
  • Inflation rate: 5% (October 2014) vs 2000% (October 2017)
  • GDP growth: 2.5% (2014) vs -7.4% (est. 2017)

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PDVSA Venezuela Russia China America Hugo Chavez Nicolas Maduro
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