A surprise jump in Venezuela’s crude oil output at the end of 2021 caught industry analysts by surprise. According to data provided by Caracas to OPEC the crisis-riven country pumped an average of 871,000 barrels per day during December 2021. That number, while considerably lower than the one million barrels per day announced by national oil company PDVSA as its end of 2021 target, still represents noteworthy growth of Venezuela’s crude oil output when compared to 2020. December 2021’s oil output was 3% greater than a month earlier and nearly double the 441,000 barrels per day pumped for December 2020. While the spike in PDVSA’s oil production during the final months of 2021 is impressive Venezuela still only pumped an average of 636,000 barrels per day, which according to data published by OPEC is only 12% higher than 2020. It is also important to note that despite the impressive production increases for November and December 2021 Venezuela’s oil output is well below the 1998 record of 3.5 million barrels daily. There are signs that PDVSA is struggling to boost oil output further, despite copious assistance from Iran, with industry experts speculating that Venezuela’s national oil company has reached capacity.
A key indicator that Venezuela’s oil production is at capacity and may be significantly lower than PDVSA is reporting is the tremendous disparity between production volumes from direct communication and those obtained by OPEC from secondary sources. Cartel data from secondary sources indicate Venezuela only pumped 681,000 barrels per day during December 2021, which is 190,000 barrels or 22% lower than the numbers provided by PDVSA. This is a common theme when reviewing the member production data published by OPEC as part of the organization’s Monthly Oil Market Report. The chart below shows a wide divergence between the production volumes provided by PDVSA and those reported to OPEC by secondary sources.
Source: OPEC Monthly Oil Market Reports 2019 to 2022.
When examining production numbers for other OPEC members there is typically only a slight variance between the volumes reported through direct communication compared to secondary sources. That indicates Caracas is potentially over-stating PDVSA’s crude oil production volumes.
Since 2016, when PDVSA ceased publicly publishing production and other data, there has been considerable conjecture about the veracity of the data provided by Caracas concerning the national oil company’s operations. This included ceasing reporting on oil spills and operational outages, leaving many to question whether PDVSA is distorting the data it supplies to appear operating in compliance with the ambitious targets set by the Maduro regime. In January 2020 Maduro proclaimed that Venezuela’s production would reach two million barrels of crude oil per day that year. This did not occur with the crisis-riven country only pumping an average of barrels per day during 2020 because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and strict U.S. sanctions, along with decaying industry infrastructure on operations.
At the start of 2021, Maduro announced another ambitious target vowing to triple Venezuela’s crude oil output to 1.5 million barrels per day, once again PDVSA’s production fell short. By late-2021 Venezuela’s national oil company had revised that number down to one million barrels per day and reported it produced an average of 871,000 barrels per day during December 2021. Maduro recently announced (Spanish) that during December 2021 PDVSA’s oil output reached one million barrels daily. In the same statement, Venezuela’s authoritarian leader then went on to set a two million barrel per day goal for 2022.
There is considerable conjecture among analysts and industry experts as to whether this is achievable. A combination of strict U.S. sanctions blocking the sale of Venezuelan crude oil and foreign investment, crumbling infrastructure and a lack of condensate for blending with the extra-heavy oil produced makes achieving that goal highly unlikely. Industry experts believe that by the end of 2021 PDVSA was operating at full capacity and would be unable to boost production without considerable investment in crucial maintenance and refurbishment of decayed industry infrastructure. In a December 2021 Reuters article Venezuela expert Francisco Monaldi, director of the Latin America energy program at the Houston based Rice University’s Baker Institute, stated:
“We are reaching that capacity now. To see an output increase during 2022, investment in new wells and upgrading infrastructure is needed,”
Two decades of mismanagement, malfeasance and chronic underinvestment in maintenance, as well as refurbishing industry infrastructure, makes it difficult to see how PDVSA can grow production further, even with a steady supply of condensate from Iran. This is particularly the case when substantial foreign capital is required if production is to return to over one million barrels per day for a sustained period.
The uncertainty surrounding the accuracy of PDVSA’s production data makes it extremely difficult to know whether the national oil company’s production reached the volumes claimed by Caracas. OPEC’s secondary data indicates that for December 2021 Venezuela, on average, only pumped 681,000 barrels of crude oil per day. While that is 20,000 barrels higher than a month prior and 249,000 barrels greater than November 2020 it is 7% less than the 735,000 barrels per day produced in December 2019. That number is significantly lower than Oil Minister Tareck el Aissami’s target of 1.5 million barrels per day by the end of 2021 and less than PDVSA’s revised 2021 production target of one million barrels daily. In a November 2021 article Argus Media asserted that Venezuela’s production data is questionable going on to state:
“While some estimates peg flow as high as 750,000 b/d, these likely include gas liquids and tend to overlook sizable water content and sediment. Even where data is considered more reliable, a tendency by local managers to embellish performance to meet unrealistic targets imposed by Caracas headquarters and the erosion of measurement expertise and functional metering equipment remain distorting factors.”
For these reasons, especially the long-term disparity between the crude oil production volumes reported by PDVSA and OPEC’s secondary sources, it is difficult to trust the accuracy of the crude oil production volumes announced by the Maduro regime. Until U.S. sanctions are eased, and western energy majors can operate profitably in Venezuela, Caracas will struggle to attract the considerable investment needed to revive PDVSA and Venezuela’s petroleum industry. That means any further meaningful expansion in crude oil production is unlikely, and Maduro’s 2022 target of two million barrels per day is unachievable.
By Matthew Smith for Oilprice.com
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