* Tankers still in shipyards in Iran, China, Argentina
* Only one Chinese VLCC operating
* PDVSA pays huge amounts in 2013 for tanker leases
* Using big tankers for cabotage, storage
By Marianna Parraga
HOUSTON, Oct 1 With flags and confetti,
Venezuela launched three new oil tankers in the last 14 months
that exemplify the socialist nation's ambitions to diversify
exports to Asian markets and give a helping hand to its
But the tankers from shipyards in Iran, Argentina and China,
have never set sail, according to five sources with knowledge of
the company's fleet, as well as ship tracking data from Reuters
showing the ships sitting where they were built.
Ship brokers, a source from state oil company Petroleos de
Venezuela (PDVSA), and a shipbuilder offered an array of
explanations for the delays ranging from lack of payment to
manufacturing problems. But it is clear PDVSA's push to replace
and expand its fleet is stumbling.
The new tankers are part of deceased President Hugo Chavez's
plan to stimulate shipbuilding in Iran, China, Argentina and
even Brazil in a broader effort to blunt U.S. power.
The three vessels are part of 42 tankers PDVSA ordered
starting in 2006 to replace its fleet by the end of 2012. But
only five of the tankers have set sail.
The delays mean higher freight costs for the financially
strapped company. An internal report from March seen by Reuters
said PDVSA leased 75 tankers. One contract signed this year
showed PDVSA was paying $15,000 a day for a tanker, a broker who
had seen the document said.
PDVSA's plan was to cut leasing, which could amount to
hundreds of millions of dollars a year at a time when PDVSA is
struggling with falling output and tight cash flow.
Photographs published by Venezuelan embassies and government
agencies more than a year ago show PDVSA officials and
dignitaries at parties launching the medium-sized Eva Peron
Aframax in Argentina and the Carabobo very large crude carrier
(VLCC) in China. The Sorocaima was shown draped in ceremonial
flags, floating in the water, in pictures by Iran's Mehr news
PDVSA's latest annual report also trumpeted the launches.
"We finished the launch and floating of the Sorocaima ...
one of the four 113,000 tonnes Aframaxes being built by Iran. We
programmed the launching of the Eva Peron for July 12th, 2012,"
But the tankers never arrived. A lapse of more than a couple
of months to register, test and deliver a ship after it is
launched is highly unusual.
"When a vessel is launched to the sea, it is because it is
ready," said the president of the Venezuelan merchant marine
officers' association, Gustavo Gonzalez. "The delivery normally
occurs 2-3 months after the launching."
PDVSA did not comment on the reasons for the lack of
STUCK IN DOCKS
Tracking data from Reuters and Marine Traffic, which include
information on ship registrations and movements, show the three
tankers never left their shipyards. At least two of the vessels
have never turned on their satellite beacons.
Gonzalez, of the Venezuelan merchant marine group, said the
delays might also stem from the fact that Venezuela gave the
jobs to less advanced shipyards that cannot build tankers as
fast as modern facilities that build them in 3 to 4 years.
Sebastian Aguilar, spokesman for the Rio Santiago shipyard
in Argentina, confirmed delivery has not been made.
"The Eva Peron is still at the dockyard. It was launched in
July 2012 and is currently in the last stage, getting equipment
ready before its final delivery," he said in a written response,
without giving reasons for the apparent delay.
Aguilar added that a second Aframax for PDVSA, the Juana
Azurduy, will be launched in the second half of 2014.
A PDVSA executive, who was not authorized to speak to the
media, said the Argentine shipyard has not delivered the $70
million tanker on time.
Iran's former commerce minister said in July that the
Sorocaima, ordered in 2006, was "ready for delivery" at the
Sadra dockyard in Bushehr, but did not elaborate.
The PDVSA executive did not explain why the vessel has not
set sail, but said it was not for lack of payment.
Nevertheless, a report late on Monday by the Iranian news
agency, Mehr, quoted the president of the Sadra shipyard as
saying there is in fact a problem with Venezuelan payments for
reasons the company does not know. He added that the company
will not take legal action against PDVSA.
The third tanker that supposedly began operating last year,
the Carabobo VLCC, ordered in 2010 from Chinese shipyard Bohai,
was not ready when Venezuelan and Chinese officials held a
christening event for it in September 2012.
"The Carabobo has not left China. It's not ready for
navigation. It's not trading yet," said a former employee of the
shipping company that manages the vessel.
He added that the company - CV Shipping, a joint venture of
PDVSA and Petrochina based in Singapore - normally meets
delivery targets and there should be no problems because the
tanker is being paid for with Venezuelan oil.
The office of the shipbuilder's president said "no comment"
and called the construction schedule a "commercial secret."
The Venezuelan embassy in China called the Carabobo event a
launch party, but the PDVSA executive said it was just a testing
exercise for the vessel.
Despite the hold up with the Carabobo, the Bohai shipyard
did deliver the tanker Ayacucho this year, the first in a batch
of four that were ordered. It is the only VLCC that PDVSA
operates on long routes to Asia, the former employee said.
USING TANKERS FOR STORAGE
Venezuela wants to diversify its export markets to replace
the United States as its main customer, but switching to Asian
markets brings higher transportation costs.
With only 20 ships of its own and not all of them seaworthy,
the PDVSA fleet carried just a quarter of the 2 million barrels
per day (bpd) of crude exported last year and 12 percent of the
500,000 bpd of refined products, the company's annual report
PDVSA's tight tanker situation has become more acute since
2012, when several fires and an explosion at its refineries
damaged more than a dozen storage tanks. That has forced the
company to use vessels to store oil.
"PDVSA will pay much more for freight in 2013, not including
the misuse of part of its fleet and the inefficiency of some
terminals," a tanker broker who trades with PDVSA said. "This
implies extra costs for delays and fines."
Venezuelan Petroleum Minister Rafael Ramirez, who is also
head of PDVSA, described the new course in March when receiving
some new tankers from Japan.
"We are en route to managing 40 percent of our exports with
our own fleet. The routes to China, Japan and India will become
profitable," he said.
But according to the tracking data, PDVSA is using most of
the new tankers to move oil between local ports because of the
poor state of its fleet, which includes eight idled Lakemaxes
that once ran to the United States.
The latest runs of four new Japanese built Aframax vessels -
the Yare, Tamanaco, Terepaima and Paramaconi - were between
Caribbean islands where the company has storage tanks and
refineries on the mainland, the tracking data shows.
"We were moored for nine days, waiting for directions
because of crowded docks and slowed refineries," a crew member
of one of the Japanese built ships told Reuters.
Three other smaller multipurpose vessels, bought second hand
by PDVSA unit Citgo in 2011, were anchored for more than a year
while it tried to transfer them to another state company tasked
with importing grains and petrochemicals.
One crew member said that, after being moored for so long,
the ships had to be repaired before starting operations in 2012.
"They are improvising as usual," he added.