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Analysis: Venezuela to cut oil exports

The Venezuelan economy has been particularly troubled by the fall of oil prices from a high last year of $150 a barrel.
by Carmen Gentile
Miami (UPI) Jan 21, 2009
Venezuelan energy officials say they are prepared to reduce oil exports to bolster the falling price of oil worldwide. South America's leading oil producer already has decided to cut oil shipments to two U.S. refineries.

Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said earlier this week Venezuela hoped to help halt the oil slump with a production cut at home. The exact amount Venezuela was willing to cut is not certain, though Ramirez said the cuts were crucial for maintaining the "balance in the oil market."

The cut included the discontinuance of oil shipments to two southern U.S. refineries, Sweeney and Chalmette.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who plays a decisive role in the operation of his country's most valuable commodity, also said this week that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, of which Venezuela is a member, is willing to reduce oil production to prevent a further drop in prices.

Chavez told lawmakers at home that OPEC cuts could reach up to 4 million barrels per day, in addition to last month's 1 million bpd reduction.

The Venezuelan economy has been particularly troubled by the fall of oil prices from a high last year of $150 a barrel.

The steep drop-off in the price of oil -- almost 60 percent less than it was at its all-time high in July 2008 -- forced significant belt-tightening measures for the Venezuelan government and the wide-sweeping social programs favored by the leftist Chavez.

Venezuela's budget for 2009 was created with a $60-per-barrel price tag for oil. But with prices hovering in the $30 to $40 range, the Chavez administration has admitted that its social efforts, both at home and abroad, would surely suffer.

"The (Venezuelan) economy will endure difficult times in years to come, no doubt," said Chavez in December during a nationwide address.

Venezuela state oil company PDVSA in recent months already announced that production levels would be cut to counter falling oil prices, part of the OPEC agreement to reduce production across the board.

PDVSA in November said it was cutting production by 129,000 barrels per day.

Perhaps one of Chavez's most relished programs, free heating oil for hundreds of thousands of poorer Americans, also was cut earlier this month because of the falling price of oil. However, the program was quickly restarted just two days after the announcement following the international attention the project's cancellation placed on the plight of PDVSA and Venezuela's economy.

The discounted oil program has riled anti-Chavez Washington. U.S. critics contended the program was more about embarrassing the United States than charity, part of the ongoing tensions between Venezuela and its largest oil customer, the United States.

While Chavez maintains his country will "endure difficult times in years to come, no doubt," it seems unlikely that PDVSA will be able to endure without some much-needed foreign investment.

Over the last few years, under Chavez's orders, PDVSA has been renegotiating contracts with foreign oil companies to give Venezuela a greater controlling share of projects. Several foreign companies chose to pull up stakes rather than endure a contract renegotiation.

But with oil prices dropping and PDVSA unable to meet even reduced production needs, the Venezuelan government has been forced to once again begin courting foreign oil in hopes of jump-starting production in the short term and perhaps provide PDVSA with much-needed capital for infrastructure improvements long put off in favor of Chavez's social spending.

"If re-engaging with foreign oil companies is necessary to his political survival, then Chavez will do it," Roger Tissot, an authority on Venezuela's oil industry at Brazilian consulting company Gas Energy, told The New York Times last week.

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