Venezuela denies responsibility for oil spills on Brazil beaches

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s government on Thursday said the OPEC-member country was not responsible for oil spills that have contaminated beaches in Brazil, after a Brazilian official said the crude was likely from Venezuela.

In a joint statement, the oil ministry and state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela said PDVSA had not received any reports from clients or subsidiaries about any oil spills near Brazil.

“We consider the statements unfounded,” the statement read, noting the spills were located about 6,650 kilometers (4,132 miles) from its oil infrastructure. “There is no evidence of any crude spill in Venezuela’s oil fields that could have caused damage to our neighbor’s marine ecosystem.”

On Wednesday, Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said thick crude oil that had been mysteriously washing up on hundreds of kilometers of beaches in nine northeastern states is “very likely from Venezuela.” Authorities have been probing the origin of the oil for more than a month.

Salles told a congressional hearing that the spill, “accidentally or not,” likely came from a foreign ship navigating near Brazil’s coast.

On Thursday, Brazilian Mines and Energy Minister Bento Albuquerque said the government had not confirmed the origin of the oil, but noted that it had properties similar to Venezuelan petroleum.

Researchers at the Federal University of Bahia, one of the states hit by the oil pollution, said on Thursday that their lab studies found a “strong correlation” between slicks spilled off Brazil coast and one of the types of oil produced in Venezuela.

“None of the types of oil produced in Brazil have characteristics of the samples analyzed,” the university’s Institute of Geosciences said in a statement.

Venezuela’s oil production has plummeted in recent years due to underinvestment and mismanagement, and more recently due to U.S. sanctions on PDVSA designed to force out socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has been among the most vocal critics of Maduro in Latin America.

Reporting by Luc Cohen; Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Richard Pullin