Cablegate: How Real Is Chavez's Oil Threat?

Published: Thu 4 Mar 2004 10:57 PM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
042257Z Mar 04
C O N F I D E N T I A L CARACAS 000731
E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/02/2014
1. (C) On February 29, President Chavez threatened to cut off
Venezuelan oil supplies to the U.S. or to nationalize U.S.
company assets if the U.S. were to seek to "blockade" or
impose sanctions against Venezuela. The U.S. majors in
Venezuela dismiss his words as bluster but do not totally
discount some action on his part. Chavez has sought, largely
unsuccessfully, to diversify Venezuela's oil sales away from
the U.S. in the past. Weighing against a sudden cut-off is
the fact that it would be enormously costly and time
consuming for Venezuela to seek out new markets to replace
its sales to the U.S. where specialty refineries are tooled
to handle Venezuelan heavy crudes. However, Chavez's brutal
restructuring of PDVSA after the general strike of December
2002-February 2003, and his draconian exchange control system
show that on economic matters a purely political logic often
prevails for him. On a much smaller scale, he has used oil
as a political tool with his action against the Dominican
Republic in 2003. While we believe such a high risk action
is not imminent, Chavez's character, revolutionary ideology,
and ignorance of how international markets function mean it
cannot be ruled out completely. Chavez may believe that his
threat, against the backdrop of U.S. domestic politics, may
cause the USG to back off. And, of course, it serves to fire
up his supporters and to burnish his revolutionary
credentials. End Summary.
2. (C) On February 29, President Chavez threatened that "not
a drop of oil would arrive from Venezuela" if the U.S. were
to seize CITGO or otherwise "blockade Venezuela." He went on
to add that the U.S. should remember that it has "plenty of
installations here" (that could be seized in retaliation).
Venezuelan Ambassador to the U.S. Bernardo Alvarez minimized
the remarks in a press conference the next day saying that
"that message was intended for the Venezuelan people and not
the North American Government." Inquiring about our reaction
to President Chavez's remarks, Juan Fernandez, President of
"Gente de Petroleo" (Petroleum People), an opposition civil
society group consisting of former PDVSA staff, commented to
PolCouns March 4 that Chavez's comments should not be
dismissed off-hand. As a PDVSA executive, he recalled, he
had had discussions with PDVSA President Ali Rodriguez about
contracts being canceled capriciously. Rodriguez told him,
Fernandez said, that he had to understand that the decisions
were matters of state, not business.
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3. (C) We canvassed the U.S. majors (ChevronTexaco,
ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil) operating in Venezuela for
their reactions to Chavez's threat of nationalization. They
were united in dismissing his words as bluster. However,
ChevronTexaco de Venezuela President Ali Moshiri commented to
econoff on March 2 that he believes the GOV is watching the
U.S. companies closely. He added that he has a "gut feeling"
there could be some action taken if a company were to "step
outside the boundaries." Mark Ward of ExxonMobil, which
besides operating in Venezuela, has a long-term purchase
contract for Venezuelan crude, remarked that PDVSA would be
hit by a blizzard of law suits. All three local company
presidents pledged to let the Embassy know immediately of any
operational changes.
4. (C) In the past, senior Chavez administration officials
have repeatedly reminded U.S. policymakers that Venezuela has
never suspended oil shipments to the U.S and assured them
that Venezuela would continue to be a stable supplier of oil.
Nonetheless, announcements of PDVSA's attempts to develop
other markets have been a hallmark of the Chavez years.
While it is normal for any business to seek to expand its
markets, we have long felt that Chavez's ideology was such
that he would prefer other customers rather than the U.S. In
reality, however, the process of building new markets in the
oil business can be a slow, costly one. In 2001, PDVSA was
ordered by the Ministry of Energy and Mines to cultivate a
market in India and signed a contract with Indian firm
Reliance Petroleum. We understand that contract proved
unprofitable and was allowed to lapse in 2002.
5. (C) Moving out of the U.S. market would be very painful
for Venezuela. Venezuela exports 1.4-1.6 million b/d to the
U.S. The majority of these exports are heavy, sour (i.e.,
high sulfur) crudes bound for so-called deep conversion
refineries that have been tooled to handle them. PDVSA's
U.S. affiliate CITGO operates several of these refineries and
others are operated by ventures that have long-term purchase
agreements with PDVSA. Admittedly, there would be an impact,
possibly serious, on the U.S. in terms of refinery economics,
etc., if Chavez were to stop these exports. But the U.S.
would have the whole world to turn to for alternative
supplies, either crude or refined, and, as a Washington-based
oil analyst told the Ambassador, the option of drawing upon
the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would be available to calm
markets. We very much doubt whether Chavez is weighing these
factors at all in making his threats. Nor does he appear to
be considering the fact that in the event of such a cut-off
PDVSA and thus Venezuela could be grievously harmed. India
and Brazil have been mentioned to econoff as possible markets
for these Venezuelan crudes. The local stringer for industry
publication "Petroleum Argus," however, has informed us that
Brazil has little of the hydrotreating and coking capacity
needed to handle the crudes while India's Reliance Petroleum
could only handle 150-200,000 b/d of heavy crude based on its
current desulfurization capacity.
6. (C) He adds that most European and Asian refiners could
not run these Venezuelan crudes straight through their
facilities, but would instead have to blend them with a
light, sweet crude to meet refinery specifications. While
this is possible, Venezuela would have to offer a significant
price cut ("next to nothing a barrel," according to our
expert) in order to induce refineries to accept the crudes.
Venezuela would also have to undercut other sellers into
these markets such as Russian oil sales to Europe. In sum,
given the realities of refinery operations, it would be more
likely that Venezuela would have to make small scale deals
with small countries to start with and suffer through a long
process of market development.
7. (C) A bigger risk to the U.S. might lie in a decision by
Venezuela to divert to other markets the approximately
400,000 b/d of light crude controlled by PDVSA. But here
again Venezuela would take a price hit and the shipping
market would also be another barrier. Venezuela would be
forced to hire tankers that normally operate in other areas,
for instance the West Africa to Asia routes. Many of these
long range tankers could not enter Venezuelan ports -- only
Jose can accommodate a tanker holding more 500,000 barrels.
These transport costs would place further pressure on the
price of Venezuelan crudes.
8. (C) In the area of products, we understand there are now a
few long distance product runs between Venezuela and Europe,
primarily in jet fuel. Venezuela might be able to expand
this market. Venezuela could export more fuel oil and gas
oil to Asia which could affect power and heating oil prices
in the U.S. But here again, Venezuela would probably have to
offer deep discounts to attract non-traditional buyers and
the shipping costs might be prohibitive. The U.S. gasoline
market has already been affected by problems in Venezuela's
refineries resulting from the 2002-2003 oil strike. It
appears that the market is already likely to be more severely
affected in 2004. Several sources reported to econoff on
March 4 that Venezuela itself is now importing over 100,000
b/d of unleaded gasoline to the Amuay refinery to compensate
for problems at the neighboring Cardon refinery.
9. (C) Finally, the experience of the 2002-2003 strike
demonstrated that Venezuela has limited storage capacity.
The strike demonstrated that if the export stream of a
million or more barrels a day is stopped, production will
have to be shut in in as little as 48 hours in some fields.
We see no evidence that PDVSA had taken any steps to increase
storage. Also, the capabilities of PDVSA's current marketing
personnel would probably not be up to the task of placing
over a million barrels of oil a day onto the spot market.
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10. (C) While PDVSA management know the damage that a cut-off
of oil to the U.S. could do to the company, the new PDVSA is
staffed by fervent supporters of the "revolution" or by
opportunists who would be unwilling to lose their access to
the spoils of corruption. The recent decision to stop the
development of the market for orimulsion, the oil-water blend
designed to replace coal in electricity plants, could be
illustrative. Canada's New Brunswick Power has recently sued
Bitor, PDVSA's orimulsion affiliate, alleging breach of an
agreement to supply orimulsion. New Brunswick went ahead to
install additional generation capacity based on signature of
a Letter of Intent with PDVSA only to have PDVSA announce its
decision to supply existing contracts only. Chavez himself
is reported to have blocked signature of the agreement with
the Canadians. It appears the decision was made to forego
the development of a relatively small but growing market for
a product developed from Venezuela's ample supplies of extra
heavy crude to produce a higher yield blend. Thus, market
development was sacrificed to short-term financial gains, at
a time when the GOV needs lots of ready cash for spending to
maintain its political standing with its low-income voter
11. (C) Chavez also showed his willingness to use oil as a
political weapon in September 2003 when he suspended oil
shipments to the Dominican Republic in protest against
supposed coup-mongering by former Venezuelan President Carlos
Andres Perez. Although Chavez has since publicly announced
that shipments under the San Jose Accord would be resumed, a
shipping industry contact tells us that what Venezuelan oil
is going to the DR is moving through traders and not
directly. Chavez's restructuring of PDVSA, laying off 20,000
employees following their participation in the general strike
aimed at his ouster, is another indication of his willingness
to put political considerations above economic ones in
dealing with oil-related issues.
12. (C) Chavez's priority is regime survival. Stopping oil
sales to the U.S., and taking what could be an enormous
revenue loss does not on its face appear to be a recipe for
ensuring the economic stability he presumably needs.
However, Chavez may believe that, in a crisis, the short-term
pain inflicted on the U.S. would be enough to cause the USG
to back off from some action against him or that by raising
it now he makes such action less likely. Chavez's
combination of an oil embargo threat with insulting remarks
about President Bush also send a message to supporters that,
not to worry, he can deal with USG pressure on the
referendum. With at best limited understanding of how
international oil markets function, Chavez may also be
over-estimating Venezuela's power in such a confrontation.
He probably does understand that a sudden cut-off of sales to
the U.S. would be a momentous decision. Such a decision is
by no means imminent; for now it is useful to fire up his
supporters and to divert attention from the referendum
process. But for the first time, he has laid on the table
the use of Venezuela's "oil weapon," such as it is, which
must be considered a new and somewhat ominous development.
Ironically, such a threat completely cuts against Venezuela's
effort to attract new international hydrocarbons investment,
such as the Deltana Platform natural gas project for which
ChevronTexaco has been awarded a concession or a giant
petrochemical plant which Exxonmobil is considering, but
clearly Chavez's main concerns lie elsewhere.
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