By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – Time was when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said he was determined to reduce what he saw as Venezuela’s undue reliance on oil exports to the United States, which normally accounts for around 40% of overall shipments of oil for export.
Well, whether or not it suits Chávez in the changed circumstances of world oil markets, it would appear at least that shipments to the northern giant are down. Whether that means dependency on the United States market is also reduced is another question.
Figures from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) at the United States Department of Energy show that Venezuelan oil shipments to the United States fell in April to what’s reckoned to be the lowest recorded level for 18 years.
Total petroleum exports, which included some oil products, averaged 891,000 barrels a day (bpd) in April this year, marking a decline of 19.43 % from 1,106,000 bpd the preceding month, and well down on the 1,189,000 bpd recorded in April last year.
Crude oil shipments to the United States dropped in April to 803,000 bpd, from 949,000 bpd in March. More significantly, perhaps, April crude exports were significantly below the 1,019,000 bpd recorded in the same month last year.
In both cases, the decline may have reflected seasonal factors as the United States emerged from winter demand. In January this year, for instance, Venezuelan petroleum exports averaged 1,353,000 bpd.
But it’s also suggested that the United States quietly boosted drawdowns from its Strategic Petroleum Reserve in April. That suggests both seasonal and policy factors may have been at play, although it’s difficult to work just how much each of these influenced the overall trend.
It’s also noted that President Barack Obama has stated that he wants to reduce the United States’ dependence on imported energy. If he pushes on with that policy, it will inevitably have ramifications for Venezuela – and all the more so in a world oil market that’s nowhere near as buoyant as once it was.
In terms of the overall total exports and crude oil shipments in April, Venezuela retained its fourth place in the league of leading oil exporters to the United States – the biggest energy market on the planet – as it has done for quite some years.
Out in front in the league of crude oil exporters to the United States was Canada, with April shipments averaging 1,854,000 bpd (curiously, up by a fractional 9,000 bpd on colder March), then Mexico with 1,177,000 bpd, and Saudi Arabia, with 1,021,000 bpd.
The top five exporters to the United States, including number five Nigeria with an average 673,000 bpd in April (suggesting that, for now, Venezuela remains secure in its fourth position), accounted for 59% of all shipments into the United States.
Early this year, Venezuelan officials attributed the decline in deliveries to the United States and other destinations to the introduction of quota cuts agreed by members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
At the time, Venezuelan Energy and Oil Minister Rafael Ramírez was pressing his OPEC colleagues to reduce quotas in a bid to stop the worldwide slide in oil prices.
Venezuela’s mix of medium-grade and heavy crude oil closed last year not much above $34 a barrel. Since then, the price has recovered, albeit to nowhere near the astronomic levels seen before the financial crisis began to take its toll around the middle of last year.
The Venezuelan “basket” averaged $62.53 a barrel last week, down 3.2% from $64.58 the previous week, and reversing an upward while still wobbly trend since the turn of the year. Industry analysts say they’ll wait and see before deciding whether this marks a renewed downward trend.
Confusion continues to swirl about just how much oil Venezuela is actually producing. Although the Energy and Oil Minister has announced that it plans to issue regular output figures, this hasn’t happened yet.
Analysts are still doing dead reckoning on the basis of outsider estimates which are usually at variance with official claims that oil production is running at over three million bpd.
With domestic demand accounting for around 500,000 bpd, and March exports unofficially estimated at between 2.1million bpd and 2.2 million bpd, the suggestion is that production can’t actually be running at more than 2.6 million bpd and 2.7 million bpd at most.
Meanwhile, figures just released by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) said Venezuelan oil production was up by 23,000 barrels a day, or 1%, in May compared to the previous month. OPEC said Venezuela's total output in May reached 2.238 million barrels per day, according to the agency's June oil market report.