* Gov’t aims for production of 3.50 mln bpd this year
* Ministry says exports averaged 2.47 mln bpd in 2011
By Marianna Parraga
CARACAS, March 21 (Reuters) - Venezuela’s efforts to boost oil production have apparently gained traction as the country’s energy ministry reported 2011 production at 2.99 million barrels per day, up 5 percent from the year before.
The socialist administration of President Hugo Chavez wants to increase the South American OPEC nation’s production to 3.50 million bpd by the end of this year, with much of the new output coming from the huge Orinoco extra heavy crude belt.
Venezuela’s oil production had steadily declined since a months-long strike in 2002, falling to 2.85 million bpd by 2010. A year later, state oil company PDVSA announced it was investing $2 billion in a plan to ramp up output from Orinoco projects.
“The company has shown solid performance, fulfilling its role as an engine of the Venezuelan economy and as a key tool in building socialism,” the Energy Ministry said in an annual report to the National Assembly seen by Reuters on Wednesday.
The report said that while production from the country’s traditional western oil heartland around the city of Maracaibo had continued to decline, output from fields in the east and in the central Orinoco region was growing.
Oil Minister and PDVSA President Rafael Ramirez has told partner companies operating in the Orinoco to work faster so new joint ventures there can pump their first barrels this year.
The partners include global giants such as U.S. major Chevron , Spain’s Repsol and Russia’s Rosneft.
The ministry’s report said crude exports averaged 2.47 million bpd in 2011, up from 2.42 million the year before.
Average exports to Asia grew to 639,000 bpd last year, from 485,000 bpd in 2010, it said, while North America and Europe received lower volumes. Chavez’s government wants to diversify its crude sales away from its biggest traditional customer, the United States, in favor of China.
International energy organizations routinely give lower estimates for Venezuela’s oil production than the levels reported by the government, which added to the skepticism last year when it decided to stop publishing any certified data.
PDVSA has not published its 2011 financial statements. Ramirez said during a visit to the Orinoco on Tuesday that the necessary meeting to sign off on the figures had not been held yet.
Separately, he said Venezuela’s crude production had risen by some 60,000 bpd in the first quarter of 2012.
The report for the Assembly by Ramirez’s ministry also underlined the repeated failures in PDVSA’s refinery and upgrading network, which has suffered multiple stoppages due to accidents and unscheduled maintenance work.
For example, the 310,000 bpd Cardon refinery - the second-biggest in the country - had 29 unplanned stoppages last year, the report said, while the 335,000 bpd Isla facility on Curacao was running at just 50 percent of its capacity.