What could Venezuela vote mean for its oil industry?

CARACAS Tue Oct 2, 2012 12:33pm EDT

Venezuela's opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles talks to the media during a news conference in Caracas October 1, 2012. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Venezuela's opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles talks to the media during a news conference in Caracas October 1, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's bitterly-fought election will not bring major short-term changes to the oil industry but if the opposition won, it would try to depoliticize the business and end supply deals with President Hugo Chavez's leftist allies.

Chavez, 58, is seeking a new six-year term and accuses opposition challenger Henrique Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor, of seeking to reverse his self-styled socialist revolution.

If Capriles wins the election on Sunday, he will replace the head of state oil company PDVSA and try to take politics out of the running of the company, which has repeatedly failed to hit its own production targets and has suffered a string of sometimes deadly accidents in recent years.

If Chavez triumphs, his government will seek to push forward a raft of ambitious joint ventures with foreign partners to develop the OPEC nation's huge Orinoco extra heavy crude belt. Venezuela, which currently produces almost 3 million barrels per day (bpd), boasts the world's biggest crude reserves.

Venezuela's oil industry brings in more than 95 percent of the country's hard currency revenue. Here are two scenarios, depending on the result of Sunday's presidential election:

CHAVEZ WINS

Chavez's government is focused on the Orinoco belt as its best hope to revive production, which fell in 2010 to its lowest level since the strike a decade ago. It sees total investment in Orinoco at more than $80 billion, and the projects are slated to add more than 2 million bpd of output.

PDVSA has joint ventures in the Orinoco with big foreign energy companies such as Chevron of the United States, Spain's Repsol, Italy's Eni and a consortium of Russian companies, including Rosneft.

Executives from foreign companies working on some of those projects say they have been delayed because of late payments by PDVSA and lack of infrastructure. Those delays are likely to continue, but the Russian joint venture began pumping its first oil last month, and others are due to come onstream soon.

Under the socialist leader, China has become a key source of funding, providing $32 billion over the last few years. PDVSA is sending 430,000 bpd of crude and products to China in repayment.

The importance of Beijing to Caracas's finances is expected to increase if Chavez wins. His administration often says it wants to boost exports to China to 1 million bpd.

A new Chavez government would also be expected to prioritize efforts to tap its offshore natural gas reserves. Venezuela is in the world's top 10 nations in terms of reserves, but has yet to begin any commercial production. Instead, it imports supplies from neighboring Colombia.

Electricity shortages are a pressing domestic issue for whoever wins the election. Development of Venezuela's natural gas reserves would help the government produce more power.

All eyes are on the Perla gas field and its reserves of more than 15 trillion cubic feet. Production is due to begin early next year at a partnership between PDVSA, ENI and Repsol.

Under a new Chavez administration, the fiscal demands on PDVSA would continue. The company funds a huge range of activities for the government, contributing tens of billions of dollars a year - which critics say means it has been unable to invest as much as it should in its oil operations.

The government has repeatedly raised taxes while requiring that PDVSA has a majority stake in all joint venture projects.

A new Chavez government is also expected to continue and possibly widen the politically-driven oil supply deals with ideological allies such as Cuba, Belarus, Iran, Syria and more than a dozen Central and South American countries.

Under these agreements, Venezuela is often paid for its oil in goods or services - sometimes with food or livestock - which puts even more pressure on PDVSA's cash flow. The company was not paid directly for almost half the crude it pumped last year.

Ramirez is expected to remain in his post if Chavez wins, at least in the short-term. He has described PDVSA as "red from top to bottom", and told a meeting with workers recently: "The only boss of PDVSA who we recognize is President Chavez."

While there is discontent within the company's ranks - some workers resent being bused to political rallies, for instance - the creation of a single workers' union has limited criticism of PDVSA's management.

"It is an honor for us to take part in Chavez's government," Wills Rangel, president of the oil workers' federation, told Reuters last month. "It is impossible for Capriles to win."

CAPRILES WINS

The opposition candidate has sought to assure workers their jobs are safe if he wins power, saying he would only fire one person: Oil Minister and PDVSA President Rafael Ramirez.

This way, he hopes to avoid a re-run of a 2002-2003 oil strike against Chavez that almost brought the economy to its knees. He has not said who he would appoint in Ramirez's place.

Capriles plans to quickly review the many oil supply deals that Chavez's government has signed in recent years. "Not one single barrel will be given to another country while there are people here in need," he said during a recent campaign rally in oil-producing Anzoategui state.

He has also said he would review all the joint ventures that PDVSA has agreed. This could delay the most important projects, even though Capriles will be under pressure to build up production and show that he can make PDVSA work.

Capriles says he would continue to re-pay China's loans, but would look into whether it was possible to pay them with cash, not fuel shipments, to help solve the company's cashflow problems. China will remain an essential partner for Venezuela, he says. "No one in the world can do without China."

He says he would not immediately raise the price of gasoline - which is the cheapest in the world -- but would instead start a debate on the issue with an eye to eventually increasing fuel costs. The topic has been a sensitive one for many Venezuelans since deadly riots over price hikes in 1989.

Capriles denies frequent assertions by Chavez that he plans to privatize the oil industry, but he wants to reverse the politicization of PDVSA, which is one of the world's biggest energy companies and has more than 100,000 employees.

"I want to see the workers of PDVSA well-paid. I don't want to see anyone having wages deducted in order to finance a political party," Capriles said.

Despite his assertions that jobs are safe, he could face a confrontation with more militant employees, some of whom owe their positions to their loyalty to Chavez.

The opposition leader's main goal for PDVSA is the same as the president's: to increase oil output to fund development. He has been vague about the details for how this would be done.

Capriles also says he would seek to diversify the economy, which has relied almost completely on oil sales for the last century. He frequently cites Norway as an example of a nation that has used its oil riches wisely to diversify.

(Editing by Brian Ellsworth, Kieran Murray and Marguerita Choy)

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