Chávez Backs Off Threats to Halt Oil Exports to U.S.

Por Venezuela Real - 18 de Febrero, 2008, 14:40, Categoría: Prensa Internacional

The New York Times
February 18, 2008

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chávez said on Sunday that Venezuela was not planning to halt oil exports to the United States. The statement may ease fears in energy markets over fallout from Venezuela’s legal battle with Exxon Mobil over compensation for the nationalization of a large oil project.

Mr. Chávez’s conciliatory tone stands in contrast to recent comments made by him and other officials here in which they threatened to stop exporting oil to the United States. They said the Bush administration and Exxon Mobil were conspiring to wreak economic havoc in Venezuela.

“We do not have plans to stop sending oil to the United States,” Mr. Chávez said during his weekly television program. Venezuela supplies about 1.25 million barrels of crude oil a day to the United States, ranking as the country’s third-largest supplier of oil after Canada and Saudi Arabia, according to the Department of Energy in Washington.

Mr. Chávez explained that Venezuela would halt the oil exports if the United States attacked. Claims by Mr. Chávez that the Bush administration is preparing an invasion of Venezuela, with the objective of gaining control of its oil reserves, have been a staple of his political rhetoric for several years.

While seemingly a reversal, Mr. Chávez’s latest comments reflect the devilish complexity of efforts to undo an oil relationship with the United States that goes back nearly a century. For instance, Petróleos de Venezuela, the national oil company, announced last week that it would suspend commercial relations with Exxon.

But the move seemed to be meant more for consumption within Mr. Chávez’s political movement here, which faces growing discontent over corruption charges and food shortages. In fact, the decision applies only to day-to-day sales of oil to Exxon, not to established contracts.

And though Exxon is regularly described on state television here as an enemy of Venezuela, Exxon and Petróleos de Venezuela still jointly own a refinery outside New Orleans that was specifically built to handle Venezuelan oil, which is high in impurities like sulfur.

Few countries outside the United States have such refineries designed to process Venezuela’s oil, making a redirection of the country’s petroleum exports problematic. Despite a deterioration of political ties with Washington, oil exports to the United States remain Venezuela’s largest single source of export revenue.

Exxon has adopted the most aggressive approach of any major international oil company in dealing with Venezuela, choosing to shut down much of its Venezuelan operations last year. Most other companies ceded control of projects to Mr. Chávez, becoming minority partners and paying higher taxes.

Signaling that his efforts to exert greater control over the oil industry are not over, Mr. Chávez also spoke Sunday of the possibility of raising taxes on foreign oil companies by enacting a windfall profits tax. International companies like Chevron, BP and StatoilHydro of Norway continue to operate in Venezuela.

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