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Matthew Smith

Matthew Smith

Matthew Smith is Oilprice.com's Latin-America correspondent. Matthew is a veteran investor and investment management professional. He obtained a Master of Law degree and is currently located…

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Venezuela’s Crisis Threatens U.S. Control Over Oil Prices

The Russian bear is on the prowl once again as President Putin seeks to expand Moscow’s influence and bolster the one-time superpower’s global influence while proving to constituents he can restore Russia’s superpower mantle. As demonstrated by his policy in Ukraine in 2014, Moscow seeks to take advantage of regional conflicts to extend its authority and geopolitical power base while bolstering its economy.

Cynically, many of the countries Russia is targeting are rich in oil. Putin’s administration allied itself with the oppressive regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, embroiling itself in that nation’s bloody multisided civil war. In late January 2018, Moscow finally received its long-awaited payment for its involvement, not only had it secured a close regional ally but the exclusive rights to produce oil and gas in Syria.

Another country benefitting from Putin’s largesse is crisis-ridden and cash strapped Venezuela which has the world’s largest crude oil reserves, placing it ahead of Saudi Arabia and Canada both staunch U.S. allies. Moscow has been using Venezuela’s deepening economic and political crisis to strengthen its relationship with the highly unpopular socialist regime of President Maduro. That has included providing a financial lifeline to cash strapped Caracas and especially state-controlled energy company Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. known by its initials as PDVSA.

Oil production is caught in an ever wider downward spiral caused by a conspicuous lack of critical maintenance on industry infrastructure including refineries and wellheads. A mass exodus of skilled industry labor is causing that decline to accelerate. In its December 2018 Monthly Oil Market Report, OPEC announced that according to secondary sources Venezuela’s November 2018 oil output was 1.1 million barrels daily. This represents a stunning 41 percent decline compared to the daily average for 2017 and is 26 percent lower than at the start of 2018. The pace at which the troubled Latin American nation’s oil output is deteriorating will likely see it fall below 1 million barrels daily during 2019. Related: Mexico Hedges Oil at $55 A Barrel

There has also been a noticeable decline in both exploration and well development drilling which is only serving to exacerbate oil field decline rates.

This is weighing heavily on a cash strapped Caracas which has very few other sources of income and is profoundly dependent on crude to earn desperately needed hard currency.  Caracas and PDVSA have essentially defaulted on their debt and bankruptcy is looming which has raised considerable concern among creditors which in recent months have been scrambling to secure assets. This has only worsened the cash crunch being experienced by Caracas and along with U.S. sanctions preventing Venezuela from accessing international credit markets is a critical driver of Maduro’s attempt alternate solutions including a closer relationship with Moscow. With few friends elsewhere, Russia has become a key ally for the strife-torn nation causing Maduro to leap at the opportunity provided by Moscow.

Russia has shown itself willing to be a creditor of last resort for Maduro. In exchange for moderate loans, cash advances, bail outs and arms over the last five years since Maduro came to power, Moscow has secured significant interests in five of Venezuela’s largest oil fields. The Maduro regime has also signed over almost half of its downstream, refinery and infrastructure business Citgo to Russian state-controlled oil giant Rosneft for $1.5 billion in urgently needed funds. That includes giving Moscow indirect interests in Citgo’s U.S. refining assets.

This is quite a prize for Moscow. It not only bolsters its oil reserves, infrastructure and assets in a country which hold the world’s largest oil reserves, but it gives Russia a strategic presence in a region long considered to be exclusively under U.S. hegemony. Moscow has coveted such a presence since the Cold War began, and even more so after its failure to base missiles in Cuba which triggered the Cuban missile crisis.

It appears that Russia is not interested in the survival of the Maduro regime but rather to evade existing sanctions, apply political pressure to the U.S. and boost its oil reserves, refining capacity and production. There is a growing likelihood that Russia can cement its presence in South America because of a growing void triggered by Trump’s general disinterest in Latin America as well as tough rhetoric on narcotics, migration and corruption. It shouldn’t be forgotten that despite its economic woes Venezuela has one of the most powerful militaries in South America, which has had its strength bolstered by Russian arms.

Related: Maduro Clings To Power As Venezuela’s Oil Collapse Continues

Moscow is clearly looking to bolster its oil reserves, infrastructure, refining capacity and production to boost its global political power. Venezuela’s vast reserves totaling 300 billion barrels dwarf U.S. reserves which reached a record 39 billion barrels at the end of 2017. Because of the U.S.’s vast shale oil industry and rapidly growing production, which now makes it the world’s largest oil producer, it has been able to effectively dictate oil prices, displacing OPEC’s ability to influence the world economy. Greater ability to influence oil prices and use crude to further extend Russia’s national interest is particularly important to Moscow because oil and gas exports generate around 40 percent of its fiscal revenues.

A notable increase in the volume of oil reserves and production that it controls will give Russia greater influence over oil prices. The validity of such a strategy was demonstrated by the political power that Moscow has been able to exert over Germany, Poland and Ukraine because Russia is a crucial supplier of natural gas to those nations.

Moscow not only wants to expand its global geopolitical power but also maximize the value of its existing reserves and production before the advent of peak oil demand by having a greater say in setting the market price. By achieving control of a substantial proportion of Venezuela’s vast oil reserves Russia can strengthen its global political presence, gain greater influence over oil prices and use crude as an economic weapon to achieve its national interest.

By Matthew Smith for Oilprice.com

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  • John Brown on January 14 2019 said:
    As this article shows out the corrupt illegitimate Maduro regime, which is starving the Venezuelan people, us selling the nation to Cuba & now Russia to stay in power.
    It’s time for the USA to work w other major Latin American countries to end this corrupt tyranny & save the Venezuelan people from slavery & starvation. It’s time to forcibly remove the tyrant & recognize a leader of the opposition as an interim President until free elections can be restored.
  • James Frank on January 14 2019 said:
    " ... oppressive regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, embroiling itself in that nation’s bloody multisided civil war..."

    Stopped reading the article after this caterwauling.
  • Steven Conn on January 14 2019 said:
    The article tries to sneak in some noxious elements where one expected analysis. Apparently slogans about Syria, Venezuela, and Russian policy there are en vogue nowadays in mainstream press. Washington meanwhile is cast as an innocent bystander - in Syria, Ukraine, and Venezuela of all places! I'd guess that even most Americans would not buy such depiction. Not in 2019.
  • Steve Powell on January 15 2019 said:
    Greetings. Though I generally agree with the authors point that the Russian government is attempting to garner increased influence and control of oil reserves in Venezuela, much of the moves by Putin are empty. For example all it takes for Russia to lose it's CITGO assets in the United States is for someone in the United States to declare it is not going to happen for national security reasons. Ditto for any asset within Venezuela. It is not certain that the Maduro regime will last. If it were to fall any declaration of Russian assets could be quickly voided. What happens when poverty creeps up the ranks of the military? Lastly I see no evidence that sans someone pumping out of the ground for them that Russian governments have any skill in extracting oil much less running a business in a country like Venezuela that is bereft of infrastructure, skilled labor, and filled with corruption. As the author mentioned the loans so far have been moderate in nature.

    My personal opinion is that this is Putin putting in a nickel for a long shot. The more likely scenario for Venezuela if regime change does not occur is implosion where what remains is not useful for anyone. Russia does not have the economic clout or the resources to take such a risk. Even the Chinese who had first dibs with their much deeper pockets walked away. Oil only has 20 years of viability anyway. The US oil companies know this and are pumping like crazy to make their buck now. So 200 billion barrels in the ground will not mean so much in 2040.

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