Why Venezuela’s People Are Suffering

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by Eric Zuesse, Strategic Culture:

The case that will be documented here is that Venezuela’s people are suffering from a tragic national situation which actually cannot be reversed by anything that’s within the power of Venezuela’s Government to do or to block. In order to understand this very unfortunate reality (if one wants to understand it), one must first understand the relevant parts of the broader situation in the world that affects Venezuela. What’s dooming the country isn’t merely a local situation, but instead is global and environmental. It also is economic, pertaining to the role that Venezuela is playing in the global economy. But the economic factor is definitely not of the kind that it’s commonly assumed and alleged to be. It is instead very different.

Here, this very different reality will be both described and documented (instead of just founded upon assumptions — many of which are false — such as the standard, basically local, economic ‘explanation’ of Venezuela’s troubles is, which focuses on Venezuela’s socialism, or the economy’s being not sufficiently capitalist).

What it all comes down to, stated in its briefest terms, is that no nation can do anything but lose money by selling the world’s dirtiest oil, tar-sands oil, which costs $100+ to clean and produce, into a global oil market that’s paying less than $100 (currently around $65) per barrel. Venezuela was able to sell it profitably when oil-prices were high, but is getting crushed now, because its oil is no longer profitable to produce and sell. But 95% of Venezuela’s export-earnings come from oil. Unless and until oil-prices are again above $100 (which probably won’t happen again, except perhaps for very brief periods), Venezuela is doomed. Venezuela’s only chance to diversify its economy away from “the natural resources curse” (from which it especially suffers) was long ago, decades before the current Government came into power. That chance was missed. This ship is now sinking, and no one can save it. (And the US Government and its allies have no actual interest in saving it, but only in exploiting it, parasitically.)

So, here the real history and context for what is happening in and to Venezuela will be presented, and the reader will be able easily to verify any detail of it (by means of the links) — on one’s own, (not accepting anything on mere ‘authority’, which, in such a politically charged matter as this, is almost invariably propaganda). The reader can verify any allegation here simply by clicking onto the given link, at any point in the presentation that might seem to be questionable.

These links are directly to the items of evidence, in the specific case of: why Venezuela’s people are suffering.

Here is that case — the realistic case, without any propaganda, but with only credible news reports and source-documents as constituting its basis — regarding this question.

THE CASE

The two lands that produce the world’s highest-cost-to-produce oil are Canada and Venezuela. Both extract their oil overwhelmingly from tar-sands, which is the dirtiest of all oil and thus (by far) the costliest to refine. (Thus, it’s called “extra-heavy crude”, and that is the least desirable type. It’s also the type that, in a global-warming world, should remain in the ground, never be burned at all, as will also be explained here.)

An accurate summary statement in Wikipedia is that, “With present technology, the extraction and refining of heavy oils and oil sands generates as much as three times the total CO2 emissions compared to conventional oil,[20] primarily driven by the extra energy consumption of the extraction process.” That reference at “[20]” also states: “As the price of oil rises and as conventional hydrocarbon resources become scarcer, increased exploration and production activity is occurring in heavy oil, tar sands, and bitumen deposits. While these contribute significantly to the global energy …, they also contribute a greater share to… the detriment of the global environment.” (That’s referring to “a greater share” of “detriment” than normal crude does.) As another source phrased this matter in more explicit terms: “85 gallons of water, two tons of soil, 700-1200 cubic feet of natural gas, and 170 pounds of greenhouse gases make one barrel of crude oil” from tar-sands. That oil is simply not usable as-is to go into refining, like, for example, the standard Brent crude is. Furthermore, to produce that barrel of tar-sands-derived oil requires also the production of tons of sheer waste, none of which is left behind from producing normal oil. The cost of dealing with that waste is not factored into the cost of the barrels of oil. For examples, the future “impact upon water supplies,” and that “this water is polluted by toxic substances,” are not counted in. Therefore, the full cost of such oil has never been calculated. And yet, even so, everyone recognizes that tar-sands-derived oils are the costliest to produce.

On 25 January 2013, HSBC Global Research issued a landmark report, “Oil & Carbon Revisited: Value at risk from ‘unburnable’ reserves”. It defined the key concept of “Unburnable reserves: The IEA’s World Energy Outlook (2012 edition) estimated that in order to have a 50% chance of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 2ºC, only a third of current fossil fuel reserves can be burned before 2050. The balance could be regarded as ‘unburnable’.”

The oil in Canada and in Venezuela is the world’s least burnable, the most “heavy,” and therefore it’s not only the costliest to produce, but it’s also the worst environmentally. There is consequently increasing pressure upon large investment funds such as Harvard’s 39-billion-dollar endowment fund, to disinvest in fossil fuels. Because of interlocked boards of directors or trustees, and the needs that such ‘charities’ have to appeal to wealthy donors, these public pressures are often (as in Harvard’s case) ignored, but the movement toward divestment is gradually gaining strength in the less corrupt investment funds.

On 13 December 2018, the environmental organization 350.org headlined “Landmark fossil fuel divestment reached! 1000+ institutions are withdrawing investments from coal, oil and gas companies”, and announced:

The 1000th institution to divest was the Caisse des dépôts et consignations (CDC), which manages France’s public sector pensions, savings, and investments worth ˆ173 billion (USD$196 billion). It recently announced that from 2019 it will no longer invest in companies that make more than 10% of their business from coal – this implies that the top 200 companies in the coal-industry are now effectively blacklisted. …

On the momentum for divestment since 2013 – Nicolas Haeringer, an organiser who supports divestment groups globally, at 350.org said:

“This is a moral movement as well as a financial one. Just five years ago we had 181 divestment commitments and USD$50 billion shifted away from polluting industries and today we’re over 1000 and approaching USD$8 trillion dollars.”

This has already helped to drive many coal companies out of business. Though coal-mine owners and employees might lose from that, the entire world gains vastly more from it. Such a transition is called “progress.” Transition in the opposite direction — toward more bad than good — is called “regress,” or, simply, “harm.” Some people call it “conservatism,” but whatever it is, certainly isn’t progress. Not in any way. But that’s what the US Government and the Canadian Government want: extreme conservatism — not conservation. And they view Venezuela’s tar-sands oil as being a prize that they could profit from if Venezuela’s Government could be ‘persuaded’ to reduce their environmental regulations on extracting it. However, in 2012, Venezuela strengthened, instead of weakened, its environmental laws. That strengthened the motivation for the US and Canada to take over Venezuela. Hugo Chavez died in 2013, and Nicolás Maduro replaced him. Then, in 2016, Maduro instituted a new policy, to weaken environmental enforcement in Venezuela. Perhaps he was hoping that this would reduce the US-and-allied efforts to overthrow him. Venezuela’s economy was already on the ropes. The US continued its efforts to overthrow Maduro. Now desperate, he started selling off 12% of the land to international mining companies. Environmental enforcement at PDVSA also plunged, and on 24 November 2018, Bloomberg News bannered “Venezuela Is Leaking Oil Everywhere”. Apparently, the weaker Maduro gets, the worse he becomes. He had entered a doomed office as the president, and seems willing to do anything not to drown in it. Apparently, the weaker he gets, the more that US-allied billionaires want to take over the country, entirely on their own terms. It’ll be like what had already happened in Greece, when the Syriza Party there capitulated to the international financial firms in 2015, and the Government stripped pensions, education, social services, etc., and privatized the infrastructure. But the path toward that end is quite different in Venezuela.

With the world’s increasing move toward renewables, the disinvestment in oil companies will increasingly be targeted toward selling the stock in the ones that have invested the most in oil fields in Canada and Venezuela. However, the situation is radically different for Venezuela than it is for Canada. Here is why:

The biggest market for Canadian oil is just next door, the United States. Most of the oil that’s imported into the US comes from Canada. And, because most of the oil companies that are producing oil in Canada are US owned or allied (such as in UK), the US Government isn’t sanctioning Canada and trying to bring its Government down by reducing Canada’s oil-sales via sanctions, such as is the case with regard to Venezuela’s oil-sales. The US Government doesn’t need to do that in order for America’s corporations to become enabled to sell the oil that comes from Canada: they’re already selling that oil, and Canada’s Government (as well as America’s Government) is already helping America’s companies to do this. America’s and Canada’s aristocracies are allied — not only with Venezuela’s aristocracy (which wants to replace Venezuela’s existing Government), but also with each others’ aristocracy.

Furthermore, unlike Venezuela, Canada isn’t nearly 100% dependent upon its oil-sales in order to support its economy, such as Venezuela tragically is. Venezuela receives around 95% of its export-income from its oil. That’s ridiculous and, for geostrategic and geoeconomic reasons, should never have been tolerated by Venezuela’s Government, but it nonetheless has been tolerated by them — and, for many decades, not only by Venezuela’s present Government. Indeed, Oil&Gas Journal headlined on 8 February 2010, “All about Orinoco” and reported that there had been “early efforts to produce heavy crude from the [Orinoco] belt” and these efforts “led PDVSA predecessors to output by the early 1980s of 93,000 b/d.” Furthermore, “Petroleos de Venezuela SA estimated 1.18 trillion bbl of oil in place in the Orinoco in 1987 and revised that in 2006 to a median of 1.3 trillion bbl, a maximum of 1.4 trillion bbl, and a minimum of 900 billion bbl.”

At that time, Richard Turcotte, of Peak Oil Matters, warned about this report, by headlining “A Look at Venezuela”, and pointing out that:

Unlike the light sweet crude oil produced by the US and the light oil which has made Saudi Arabia such a force, the Orinoco oil is “heavy oil” found in oil sands — similar in characteristics to the tar sands bitumen found in Alberta, Canada. (See my prior post here.) The Venezuela oil is thus much harder to extract and refine, making it more costly. Significant investments of time and money are required to provide adequate refinery capabilities. Needless to say, extracting this heavy oil is a much more energy-and time-intensive effort than is the process for extracting the more familiar light crude. It is not anyone’s answer in the next few years.

Lead researcher and USGS geologist Chris Schenk admitted that their report is not asserting that the “technically recoverable” oil is in fact “economically recoverable.” That’s a significant distinction, and one that needs to be emphasized. All the presumed underground reserves in the world won’t mean much if it makes no sense to invest the time, effort, and money to try and extract them.

The USGS nonetheless estimates that a stunning 40 – 45% of that resource will be ultimately recoverable. One prominent geologist (and a former board member of Petroleos de Venezuela SA — Venezuela’s state oil company) is already on record as doubting anywhere near that amount can be recovered, and stated that much of what might actually be recoverable would in fact be too expensive to produce. 

Perhaps Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez and his predecessors were thinking that if the US Government says that this oil is an asset, then it is reasonable to consider it to be an asset; but if the US Government was instead merely aiming to get Venezuelans to think that it’s an asset so as to keep that country accepting its existing oil-monoeconomy (its over-dependence upon oil), then ultimately as the disappointment hits when the Venezuelan people experience the poverty after having hoped and tried to develop that ‘asset’, the US Government will become welcomed in, to take over Venezuela’s failing Government. Anyway, that would be a conceivable reason why the US Government would be promoting the ‘economic potential’ of the Orinoco belt. The aristocracy’s agents (in this case the petroleum industry) tend to be very clear-eyed about what’s of benefit to their paymasters. For whatever reason, the actual fact — that this oil was no asset — has remained hidden from the Venezuelan public. It still isn’t publicly acknowledged by Venezuela’s Government. Nor is it publicly recognized by America’s.

So, this tragic error (of presuming that tar-sands oil should be developed) goes back even to well before the time of Hugo Chavez. Moreover, it’s worth pointing out that the actual source of the ‘error’ is the petroleum industry itself, which, like the tobacco companies before it, constantly propagandized for increased production and sales, regardless of what the science says. A good example of that propaganda is the Editorial in Oil&Gas Journal on 24 January 2019, headlining “Costs, energy needs discredit ‘keep it in the ground’ agenda”. It says: “Preemptive opposition to oil and gas projects by ‘keep it in the ground’ activists promises needless hardship in two broad areas.” This is a denial of the entire concept of “unburnable reserves.” They want, instead, to burn it all — and even to keep prospecting to find yet more oil and gas (at this time of already greatly excessive inventories of cleaner reserves that should be burned before any of Canada’s or Venezuela’s filth is). They could lay off their entire teams of oil-explorers, who are wasting their time to find yet more dirty energy sources that won’t ever need to be used by anybody. Either these people are stupid and insane, or else they are psychopaths who care only about keeping their existing jobs and don’t care at all about the world that future generations will be experiencing. If their children knew, then what would they think of what their parents had done to the world that they will be living in?

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