The U.S. has stepped up sanctions against Venezuelan individuals in the wake of the July vote in Venezuela aimed at rewriting the constitution, which is further eroding democracy in the country with the world’s largest proved oil reserves. Further sanctions— namely against Venezuela’s oil industry by imposing a ban on U.S. imports of Venezuelan crude— are not off the table either, as the U.S. contemplates additional measures to stymie the progress of Nicolas Maduro’s authoritarian regime.
The possibility of Venezuelan oil import restrictions has divided White House advisors, and now is pitting Harold Hamm, chairman and CEO of Continental Resources and energy advisor during President Trump’s campaign, against U.S. refiners that import Venezuelan crude to process at their refineries.
Hamm favors the approach of cutting off Venezuelan oil exports to the U.S., as well as stopping U.S. light sweet crude exports to Venezuela, which uses that type of crude to blend it with its heavy crude oil before shipping it to international markets.
“If the president wants to make an immediate impact on Venezuela to stop these human rights abuses and restore the situation, he’s got the ability to,” Hamm told Bloomberg in an interview in his capacity as head of the Domestic Energy Producers Alliance.
The U.S. refiners, however—many of whom import Venezuelan oil for their Gulf Coast facilities adapted to process the heavy crude—are railing against any oil-related sanctions on Venezuela. They argue that possible sanctions on the Venezuelan energy sector would harm the U.S. industry, and cause it to scramble for heavy crude supplies from elsewhere, which would result in higher fuel prices for consumers. Related: Saudi Oil Minister Just Did Something He Has Never Done Before
According to the latest available EIA data on U.S. crude imports, Venezuela was the third biggest provider of crude oil to the United States in May this year, with 708,000 bpd of imports and behind only Canada and Saudi Arabia.
Venezuela-owned Citgo Petroleum, as well as Valero, Phillips 66, Chevron, and PBF Energy Inc, are most dependent on Venezuelan supplies. Those companies are also the ones most actively lobbying in Washington against potential sanctions on Venezuelan oil, Bloomberg reports, citing four people in the know.
According to U.S. Customs data compiled by Bloomberg, Venezuelan crude represented 43 percent of the refinery capacity at Chevron’s Pascagoula refinery in July, as well as 62 percent of Valero’s St. Charles refinery capacity.
Prices for the heavy sour crude grades like the one Venezuela is supplying to the U.S. would increase in case of energy sanctions, Valero Energy Corp’s Vice President Gary Simmons said last month, adding that a ban would send Venezuelan cargoes to markets other than the U.S. Gulf Coast.
And while Hamm is supporting oil-related sanctions on Venezuela, U.S. refiners and Republican Senators from Gulf Coast states are actively lobbying against potential bans.
Last month, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), which represents more than 95 percent of the U.S. refining sector, sent a letter to President Trump, in which it argued that refineries along the Gulf Coast have made substantial investments to process heavy crude, particularly of the Venezuelan variety. Sanctions would destabilize crude markets, it claims, as U.S. refiners would have to source supplies from other markets, which do not offer suitable alternative sources of supply, the AFPM said.
“In short, sanctions on Venezuela’s energy sector will likely harm U.S. businesses and consumers, while failing to address the very real issues in Venezuela,” the refiners said.
Last week, Senator Bill Cassidy, MD (R-LA) sent a letter to President Trump, “urging the administration to protect Gulf refiners from indirect harm caused by potential Venezuelan energy sanctions.” Related: U.S. Oil Sanctions Could Push Venezuela To The Brink
“While deliberating the spectrum of potential responses, we believe it is critical to consider the role that the U.S. energy industry and refining sector play in our economic and national security interest. Oil refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast that process the heavier grades of Venezuelan crude represent a significant portion, nearly 10 percent, of U.S. imports. Blockading imports could inflict great harm on this industry and burden U.S. taxpayers with the cost,” the letter co-authored by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX), Thad Cochran (R-MS), and Roger Wicker (R-MS), reads.
While oil tycoon Hamm supports the U.S. response that would hurt Venezuela’s oil and thus its only foreign reserve income, U.S. refiners argue that sanctioning Venezuela’s energy sector would have wide-ranging impacts on the U.S. industry and fuel market, and on global heavy crude flows.
By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com
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