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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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Blackout Shuts Down Venezuela’s Oil Exports

Venezuela suffered a sweeping blackout last week, which threatens to cut off oil exports from the country.

U.S. sanctions have already severely impacted oil operations, leaving cargoes stranded off the coast as well as leaving ships idling in the Gulf of Mexico unable to complete sales to U.S. buyers. However, Venezuela has entered a dangerous new phase, with an electricity blackout gripping most of the country.

Argus Media reported on Sunday that Venezuela’s main oil export terminal and its heavy crude processing complex in Jose are shut down. “Three heavy crude upgraders and a blending operation that national oil company PDVSA operates with foreign minority partners, as well as petrochemical plants run by Pequiven in Jose, are suspended,” sources told Argus. These projects include the PetroPiar joint venture with Chevron, the PetroMonagas with Rosneft, and the PetroCedeno with Total and Equinor. Combined, the projects ostensibly have a capacity of 450,000 bpd.

The joint ventures had weathered the multi-year economic and political crisis better than some of PDVSA’s operations, but now nothing is immune to a widespread blackout.

New York Times journalist Anatoly Kurmanaev posted on a twitter a rather dire analysis of the blackout. He said that some of the evidence suggests that the blackout may have been the result of damage to turbines at a hydroelectric complex, which he said is “a scary thought” because if they are damaged, “they will be very hard to replace or repair” due to a lack of money or skilled people. So, while Venezuela has suffered from repeated blackouts in recent years, this one might be much more serious. The government’s lack of explanation has only fed fears that the situation is acute.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro blamed a cyberattack by the U.S. while American officials deny involvement. Venezuela’s hydroelectric dams and transmission lines suffer from chronic underinvestment and lack of maintenance, so it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the decrepit state of the facilities themselves are to blame. Related: Is Norway’s Oil & Gas Selloff A Mistake?

To be sure, though, some events have been confused in the fog of the crisis, while arguably others have been deliberately obfuscated. The New York Times reported that the widely cited burning of an American aid convoy by Maduro’s henchmen probably wasn’t accurate. An errant Molotov cocktail thrown by an anti-Maduro protestor was probably to blame. That may seem like a minor detail, but top U.S. officials – including coup leaders Senator Marco Rubio and national security advisers John Bolton – repeatedly blamed the incident on Maduro, providing yet another justification for regime change.

The reason this matters is that the current blackout creates not only another pretext to escalate the pressure against Maduro, but also provides a vast backdrop of confusion onto which more plans of overthrow can be hatched by the opposition and its American backers.

“You have every right to be very angry, but now is the time to take action,” opposition leader Juan Guaidó told supporters. “We all know who is responsible and we need to find solutions. We need to take action together in the street.”

The lack of electricity also means that Maduro’s grip is slipping, and while he has held on this long, a persistent blackout could threaten to bring on complete societal chaos.

The effect on Venezuela’s oil production is unclear. Scenarios range from steeper declines in a best-case scenario, to more abrupt and acute outages due to the blackout in a worst-case scenario. How that impacts oil prices is also uncertain. Oil posted gains at the start of the week, but any hypothetical outages in Venezuela may be somewhat offset by news that Libya is restarting oil production at its largest field, which has been offline since December.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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