A Different View Of Venezuela’s Energy Problems

(c) Neglect of current systems becomes an increasing issue, as the lack of hard currency revenue from oil exports becomes a bigger issue. 

Venezuela can, in theory, buy what it needs from abroad, but there is a limit to the total amount of goods and services that can be imported, based on the amount of hard currency funds it obtains from selling crude oil. If the price of oil falls, then Venezuela must, in some way, cut back on goods and services that it had previously supplied. One of the least obvious way of doing this is by cutting back on maintenance and repairs.

The recent long electricity outage in Venezuela seems to be at least partially related to neglect of usual maintenance activities. It seems that Venezuela’s state-owned electrical company failed to keep the brush cleared under electric transmission lines leading away from the very major Guri Dam. It now appears that one of the causes of Venezuela’s recent long electricity outage was damage to transmission lines caused by a brush fire within the Guri complex. This could perhaps have been prevented by better maintenance.

Figure 2 shows that energy consumption per capita has been falling, especially since 2011. This would suggest that standards of living have been falling. Needless to say, if Venezuela’s oil exports drop further, a further reduction in standard of living can be expected.

Why Is America Issuing Sanctions Against Venezuela’s Oil Company PDVSA?

On January 28, 2019, the United States imposed sanctions against Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA. The reasons given for these sanctions are the following:

  • To hold accountable those responsible for Venezuela’s tragic decline in oil supply
  • To restore democracy
  • To help prevent further diverting of Venezuela’s assets by Maduro, and thereby preserve those assets for the people of Venezuela

These reasons sound good, but I expect that the primary real reason for the sanctions was to try to take Venezuela’s oil production off line and, through this action, force oil prices higher.

World oil prices have been far too low for oil producers since at least 2014.

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Figure 3. Historical inflation-adjusted oil prices, based on inflation-adjusted Brent-equivalent oil prices shown in BP 2018 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Many people, thinking about the oil price situation from the consumers’ point of view, are completely unaware of the problem that low oil prices can cause for producers. Oil producers may not go out of business immediately because of low oil prices, but eventually, the low prices will cause a cutback in investment, and thus production. Countries that have sold some of their oil production in advance, such as Venezuela, are especially vulnerable.

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Figure 4. Venezuela’s energy production by type, based on data of BP 2018 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 4 shows that oil production for Venezuela has been dropping for a very long time. Its highest year of production was 1970, the same early high year as for United States’s oil extraction. Natural gas is mostly “associated” gas, which is made available through oil production. Hydroelectric is small in comparison to oil and gas. Hydroelectric production has been generally falling since 2008.

There is a widespread belief among oil executives and politicians that reducing oil production will force oil prices up. I expect to see, at most, a brief spike in oil prices. The major issue is that the world economy is a networked system. Prices for oil and for electricity cannot rise higher than consumers, in the aggregate, can afford. If there is too much wage disparity around the world, the low wages of many workers will tend to hold oil prices down, because these workers cannot afford goods such as smartphones and automobiles made with oil and other energy products. These lower oil prices reflect the fact that the way the economy has been changing in ways that leave less surplus energy to distribute to oil exporters to operate their economies.

The way the networked economy works is determined by the laws of physics, whether we like it or not. As far as I can see, the end of oil extraction comes because oil prices cannot be raised high enough to make extraction profitable. Once oil extraction becomes unprofitable, oil exporting nations will start collapsing. Venezuela is the “canary in the coal mine” in this collapse process, because of the extensive use it has made of debt.

What If Oil Prices Can Be Forced Upward? 

If somehow oil prices could be forced up by reducing Venezuela’s exports to practically zero, this would have a double benefit:

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Gary Anderson 1 year ago Contributor's comment

Oil companies generally do not make a huge profit compared to other sectors of the economy. If they did, Venezuela would have more flexibility.

Frank Underwood 1 year ago Member's comment

Yes, good point.