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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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Trump To Decide The Fate Of Venezuela's Oil Sector

Another slice of Venezuela’s oil production is at risk, and it is very much at the mercy of the U.S. government.

When the Trump administration announced sanctions on Venezuelan oil earlier this year, it offered a waiver to Chevron, which plays a crucial role in multiple projects in the country. Chevron claims roughly 40,000 barrels per day (bpd) as part of its own production, according to its financials, but in reality its operations are integral to an overall 200,000 bpd of output.

Chevron’s waiver is set to expire on July 27, and the White House faces a crucial decision. Earlier this year, the thinking was that Chevron would keep productive oil assets alive in Venezuela, which would provide the foundation for the new government of Juan Guaidó. But the American-led regime change campaign has run aground, and Guaidó’s efforts at toppling President Nicolas Maduro have at times appeared haphazard and poorly planned.

As Maduro hangs on, Chevron’s operations have served to prop him up. Or, at least, that’s how some hardliners within the White House see it. According to Reuters, there is quite a bit of disagreement within the Trump administration on whether or not to renew the waiver for Chevron. National Security Adviser John Bolton, who typically stakes out the most hawkish position, wants to let the waiver expire. If that were to occur, Chevron would be forced to wind down its operations, putting something like 200,000 bpd of Venezuela’s oil production at risk.

Others within the Trump administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, prefer an extension for the waiver. As Reuters notes, Pompeo views Chevron’s presence as important. Sources told Reuters that having an “American beachhead” in the country would be important for the Venezuelan economy if Guaidó managed push Maduro out and take over. “Maintaining an American lever will be very helpful on Day One,” said the source.

Reuters notes that a compromise position could be a shorter extension, on the order of three months rather than six months. Related: Permian Producers Underreport Fracking Activity

In early July, Maduro’s government upped the ante by suggesting that if the Trump administration let Chevron’s waiver expire, the company’s assets would quickly be seized and offered up to Chinese and Russian oil firms. In fact, as Argus Media reported, an official in the presidential palace in Caracas said that “discreet discussions” with CNPC and Rosneft were already underway.

That is something that American officials that support an extension are warning about. “If they pull the plug on Chevron, it’s just a gift on a big platter to the Russians,” an unnamed source in the U.S. government told Reuters.

On Tuesday, Juan Guaidó said that he would protect Chevron’s assets if the U.S. let the waiver expire. He argued that the expiration of the waiver “constitutes an event of force majeure,” and that once Maduro was toppled “we will adopt all the measures that will allow Chevron Corporation and its affiliates in Venezuela to restart activities,” a decree from Guaidó’s office said. It’s not clear that the decree has any practical effect since Maduro maintains control and could still seize Chevron’s assets. But the decree appears aimed at sending a signal that Chevron could return quickly if Guaidó takes over.

Adding to the intrigue however, is the possibility that Guaidó is actually in favor of letting the waiver expire even if it paves the way for Maduro to seize the company’s assets. Despite the fact that Guaidó’s decree seems designed to preserve Chevron’s position, and aimed at deterring Maduro from transferring Chevron’s assets to Russian and Chinese company, he may actually hope that Chevron is forced out.

“According to our sources, the Guaido government wants the Chevron license ended and have conveyed this position privately to the Trump Administration,” Joseph McMonigle, of consultancy Hedgeye Risk Management, wrote in a brief. “We believe the Chevron license renewal is in trouble, and the Guaido decree today signals that the Trump administration is leaning against an extension when the Chevron license expires on July 27.” Related: Heavy Oil Supply Crunch Cushions Canada From IMO 2020

If the White House does indeed let the waiver expire, it would likely trigger the transfer of Chevron’s assets to Russian and Chinese companies. But then, if that were to occur, it would force the U.S. to take secondary sanctions that might impact oil companies doing business in Venezuela, “including Russian, Chinese and European companies,” McMonigle of Hedgeye said.

That might be the whole point. “[W]e are told Guaido is flat out asking for secondary sanctions,” McMonigle said. “In our view, the termination of the Chevron license may be the catalyst for secondary sanctions as well.”

In this scenario, Guaidó is betting that another round of escalation – forcing Chevron out, bringing on secondary sanctions, and slashing Venezuela’s oil production further – will increase the pressure on Maduro and finally bring about regime change.

With the waiver set to expire on July 27, the Trump administration will decide on its course of action in the next few days.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on July 25 2019 said:
    It is not his oil to decide the fate of Venezuela’s oil sector though the United States has been for years casting some envious eyes on such unbelievably huge oil wealth, the world’s largest.

    Since the discovery of oil in great quantities in the Arab Gulf region, the United States has been ogling Middle East oil. The United States has even based its Central Command in Qatar to ensure that it controls global oil supplies on the premise that whoever controls these supplies and oil’s shipping lanes and chokepoints controls the global economy. I have argued in my book (Over a Barrel, 2004, p.191) that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was undoubtedly about oil. Even the veteran ex-chairman of the US Federal Bank Alan Greenspan has admitted in his memoirs (The Age of Turbulence, 2007, page 463) that the Iraq war was largely about oil. And who was the most architect of the invasion of Iraq and the fiercest advocate of regime change other than John Bolton, the current National Security Adviser to President Trump.

    Is it, therefore, surprising that John Bolton was the real force behind the failed illegal attempt to grab power in Venezuela. He openly said on national TV that “the sanctions will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela. It would be good for the people of Venezuela. It would be good for the people of the United States. We both have a lot at stake here making this come out the right way. A decimated oil industry in the nation with the largest proven oil reserves in the world would appear to serve some alternative interests beyond democracy and human rights.” There you have it.

    By flagrantly interfering in the affairs of a sovereign State and openly seeking a regime change, the Trump administration has been showing the ugly face of capitalism and also aspects of its imperialist policy.

    The fate of Chevron will be determined by the legally elected Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro. Chevron’s license to work in Venezuela expires on July 27, and if not renewed, Chevron would no longer be able to lawfully operate in the Latin American country. Only President Maduro’s government has the authority to renew Chevron’s licence or let it lapse.

    However, if the Trump administration under the influence of John Bolton decided to end the waiver given to Chevron, all its assets will be taken over by the Venezuelan government. In such a situation, the government may decide instead to replace Chevron with companies from its allies China and Russia which are keeping Venezuela’s economy afloat.

    America’s puppet Juan Guaido can’t protect himself let alone protecting Chevron which is the last American company still operating in Venezuela.

    After failing miserably to effect a regime change in Venezuela, the Trump administration is deluding itself if it thinks that President Maduro will ever consider stepping down. It would be more realistic for the Trump administration to admit that its plots in Venezuela have failed and to withdraw its puppet Juan Guaido.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Patrick Lataillade on July 26 2019 said:
    I am always amazed by the desire of well off upper class bourgeois to try and convince people that it is a great thing to live in a country where they themselves would not survive one day!
    For your information Doctor, Maduro lost the last elections and decided to dissolve the elected assembly ! Does that happen in your country and what would you do if that would hapen?
    Call for international help surely no?
    Be consistent please.

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