At a conference that annually celebrates–for the most part–the explosion of North American supply, a panel that featured two PDVSA alumni turned into a bleak review of an almost unfathomable crisis gripping the Venezuelan oil industry.
The strife in the streets of Caracas, and the lines of people waiting to buy the basic stuff of life, are almost secondary to the fact that, as the panelists noted, the Venezuelan government has mortgaged the future of its oil industry. Waiting for the country’s rapidly sinking ship of state to be righted by an increase in production, and maybe a boost in prices too, increasingly appears to be a pipe dream.
The two panelists discussing this on day two of the Platts Crude Oil Market-Americas conference in Houston were Alberto Cisnernos Lavalier, CEO and president of Caracas-based Global Business Consultants, and Ramon Espinasa, the lead oil and gas specialist in the Infrastructure and Environment Department at the Interamerican Development Bank.
One of the topics to be discussed at the panel was whether Venezuela was ripe for a “mini-apertura,” an opening into new investment in the country’s oil sector. The initial apertura of the 90′s was squashed by the election of Hugo Chavez as Venezuelan president, and it started the downward spiral of Venezuelan production that sent output down to 2.1 million b/d from 3.6 million b/d at its peak.
After listening to the panelists, one could only conclude that the industry is ripe for total collapse, not a surge in foreign investment.
Cisnernos noted Venezuela’s series of financial deals with China, in which loans from the Asian country are sent to Caracas in exchange for oil. The oil is sold at fixed-price numbers, which don’t look all that bad at first glance, up in the $90-$100 level, but in which the prices are CIF China and Venezuela absorbs the shipping cost. He reviewed the complicated structures of the various deals, ultimately describing them as “mortgaging the future.”
The Venezuela-China deals also violate the market’s “iron law” that usually sees oil marketed regionally, Cisnernos said. Instead, shipments taking 35-45 days to China are replacing one-week voyages into the US, Cisnernos said. And since most of the shipments are of lesser-value heavy oil or fuel oil, the shipping costs are deducting a higher percentage from the final netback than if a higher-value crude was being moved.
Venezuelan shipments to China stood at 66,000 b/d in 2008, Cisnernos said, but had averaged 326,000 b/d through the first eight months of 2013; he said he drew those figures from unofficial–and undisclosed–sources. But they’ve been as high as 488,000 b/d, he added, and “it’s roller-coaster behavior. There is no relation to production.” By contrast, the decline in exports to the US very much tracks Venezuela’s sliding output.
And the debts to China are just one of the obligations facing Venezuela. The joint ventures in the Orinoco belt each need upgraders that cost anywhere from $8 billion to $10 billion each. PDVSA must put up about 60% of the costs. “How in the world are they going to be able to pay for this?” Cisnernos said.
And Espinasa echoed what Platts Oilgram News reported a few weeks ago (and which The Barrel published in this post): financing the required PDVSA contributions to the Orinoco projects have been paid for to some degree by promising future oil shipments that would otherwise have gone to the Venezuelan coffers. “For a number of PDVSA deals they have paid for them with future supply,” he said.
The list of lamentations went on, few of them particularly shocking: the enormous brain drain from PDVSA “which will take a long time to recover,” as Espinasa said; a safety record at PDVSA refineries that could charitably be described as appalling; and a refinery operating rate that may at best top out at 60%, requiring the country to import lots of things it previously had exported, like gasoline blending components.
And with the growing street unrest in the country, forget any chance of ending the subsidy of gasoline prices that keeps retail numbers at less than 10 US cents per gallon, and leads to smuggling of what Espinasa said was about 100,000 b/d of product through Colombia and other parts of the Caribbean. The government had considered it, but given street protests, that move would be—pun clearly intended–like “throwing gasoline on the fire.”
Yet Cisnernos actually showed some optimism. He said that if there was “light at the end of the tunnel”—though why there would be was not clear—then production could be like a “hammock,” continuing to slide now but rebounding by 2020.
Espinasa offered sobering numbers on the task ahead. Twice in its history as an oil producer, Venezuela produced annual average growth rates of 110,000 b/d. The first was in the post World War II period, ending in about 1958; the second was during the Luis Guisti-led apertura of the 90’s. For Venezuela to get back to its peak output of 3.6 million b/d, reached around 1997, it would need to hit that average growth rate and sustain it for at least ten years, maybe more depending on the rates of decline in existing fields.
And he didn’t say this, but that would have to be done while some of the output that would otherwise finance that growth has already been put up as a sort of petroleum dowry to China and the Orinoco partners.