Barring Major Reforms, Venezuela’s Oil Industry Is Finished

Unless major reforms are enacted in Venezuela, its time as a major oil producer is over.

A Bolivarian National Guard member hitting a Venezuelan opposition demonstrator with his bike during a protest against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas in July. (Photo by FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images).

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Venezuela’s oil output in December fell by 11%, to 1.62 million barrels per day (BPD). That capped a decline of 29% in 2017 and represents an overall decline of 53% since the late Hugo Chávez was first elected president in 1998.

To put this in perspective, the proved reserves of the U.S. are 48 billion barrels, versus 301 billion barrels for Venezuela. (I explain here why Venezuela’s reserves are overstated, but without a doubt, they are much larger than those of the U.S.)

Yet U.S. oil production is just short of 10 million BPD — six times Venezuela’s production. And unlike Venezuela, the U.S. has seen its production increase by nearly 60% since 1998.

I have covered the ongoing demise of Venezuela’s oil industry for over a decade. I warned back in 2007 that the actions of the late Hugo Chávez would ultimately ruin the country’s oil industry:

So can Chávez under-invest in the industry while diverting money to his pet causes? He can for a while, but you can see the results. Despite having enormous oil reserves, he and his cronies are running Venezuela’s oil industry right into the ground. His generosity to the poor has only been possible because he had a goose that laid golden eggs because they constantly reinvested money back into the business. Once he kills the goose, where is he going to get the money to continue his programs?

To recap, a significant fraction of the funds Chávez spent on social programs was a result of billions of dollars of Western oil company investments in Venezuela. Once those investments started to pay off, Chávez forced companies to forgo most of the profits — or leave the country and forgo all the profits.

ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips did the latter, and Venezuela expropriated the assets. A World Bank tribunal ruled against Venezuela in both cases, but neither company has managed to recover any money.

As Venezuela began to fall apart under Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, I explained in more detail how Venezuela ruined its oil industry.

In a nutshell, the oil industry is incredibly capital intensive. Billion-dollar quarterly earnings are made possible only by multibillion-dollar capital investments. When Chávez started diverting those earnings into social programs, he failed to leave enough on the table for the oil companies to invest back into the business. The result was inevitable.

I don’t mean to suggest that it’s inappropriate to use oil company revenues for social purposes. The U.S. certainly does that with taxes it collects from the oil industry. But Chávez got greedy and ultimately killed the most important source of revenue for Venezuela. His policies toward business are a major reason for the country’s current woes.

The fall of Venezuela’s oil industry reflects a tale of two approaches to the oil industry. In the U.S., we encourage oil companies to reinvest in additional production through various tax deductions. If we employed the windfall profit tax schemes that often become popular when the oil industry is enjoying an up-cycle, then we would take a step toward how Chávez ran Venezuela’s oil industry into the ground.

Venezuela will continue to produce oil for many years, but its importance among the world’s oil producers has fallen drastically. The Permian Basin now produces 1.2 million BPD more than Venezuela — a situation that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

Saving Venezuela’s oil industry will require major reforms that once again encourage investment in the country. I doubt that’s on the agenda until the current mess resolves itself. Until then, you can stick a fork in Venezuela’s oil industry. It is an oil superpower no more.

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