March 3, 2007
A top U.S. diplomat warned Friday that Venezuela cannot afford to drive away the major oil companies affected by President Hugo Chavez's decision to takeover the nation's most promising oil-producing operations.
Chavez decreed this week that his government would take a minimum 60 percent stake in projects run by four companies in Venezuela's Orinoco River region — his latest nationalization move as he steers the country toward socialism.
Industry experts have questioned whether state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, has the money and capacity to take on the complex, heavy-oil upgrading projects. They are run by British Petroleum PLC, Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips Co., Total SA and Statoil ASA.
"Venezuela opened its energy section in the 1990s because it didn't have the capital or the technology to exploit its deep wells and its heavy oil, especially in the Orinoco," said Thomas A. Shannon, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs. "If it's the intention of Venezuela to have a top of the line industry, then maintaining partnership with these companies is going to be essential."
Chavez's decree gives the companies four months to negotiate whether they will stay on as minority partners. He has not said how the government will pay for its increased share in the projects, in which some of the companies are estimated to have invested some $17 million.
Companies pumping oil elsewhere in Venezuela submitted to state-controlled joint ventures last year with little resistance, reluctant to abandon a country with the largest oil deposits outside the Middle East.
On Tuesday, France's Total said it would continue negotiating with Venezuela to "keep a satisfactory profitability" in the project it jointly owns with Statoil and PDVSA. But Total chairman Thierry Desmarest said he was worried about the "operational constraints" Venezuela's majority stake would impose.
Production fell when PDVSA took control of oil fields elsewhere in Venezuela last year. Chavez depends on the company to pay for his socialist movement, and PVSA spends a third more on funding social programs than on investments to maintain production.
"It's just our hope that as the Venezuelan government considers its steps, it understands these companies entered Venezuela in partnership," Shannon said. "They almost certainly hope to stay in Venezuela in partnership, but the degree to which the government of Venezuela ... can speak clearly to the companies ... is going to be very important."
Shannon also said the U.S. government was not concerned about Venezuela's reliability as an oil provider, despite threats from Chavez to cut off oil shipments to the United States. Chavez has said he is ready to divert oil exports to other countries like China and India.
But Shannon suggested Venezuela would have the most to lose with such a move. He noted that 80 percent of Venezuela's petroleum revenue comes from the United States and that most refineries capable of processing Venezuela's heavy crude are in the U.S.
"Whether President Chavez likes it or not, Venezuela is joined to the hip with the United states," he said. But "if Venezuela were to make a decision that it will sell oil some place else, well, we would buy it some place else."