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Peter Zeihan

Geopolitical Strategist

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Commentary

US lifting Venezuela oil sanctions does not change the game

Oct 30, 2023

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Peter Zeihan

Geopolitical Strategist

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The United States recently lifted some of its sanctions against Venezuelan oil. The decision comes as part of a deal to reward Venezuela for pro-democracy progress and in light of far more serious threats emerging around the world. The Biden Administration has warned, however, that the U.S. may reimpose these sanctions if Venezuela does not continue to make progress towards basic human rights and democracy goals.

Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan provides the context for this decision and reviews how it impacts the American oil economy. He adds that the United States should also scale up its own domestic refining capabilities in order to truly prepare for any future oil crisis.

The following is an excerpt from Zeihan’s Oct. 30 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

The Biden administration has suspended some sanctions on the Venezuelan oil industry thanks to Maduro’s (ever-so) slight easing of political restrictions. While this may pump some air back into the lungs of the oil sector, it will take a lot more to get Venezuela back to significant levels.

The history of Venezuelan crude is about as thick and complex as its dino juice. Back in the day, the U.S. built infrastructure to accommodate the viscous crude coming from the south. Once that crude became unreliable (in more than one way), the U.S. closed the door on those imports.

Now that some sanctions have been lifted, we’ll likely see some more steady flows of Venezuelan crude into the system…but it will take much more foreign investment and reestablishing of trust and reliability to revive the Venezuelan oil sector.

Everybody, Peter zillion here coming to you from Seattle, Washington, it is the 20th of October, although you’re probably not going to see this one for a while, because there’s a lot going on, we have a bit of a stack in front of us. Today, the Biden administration in Washington announced the suspension of some of the sanctions that are in place on the Venezuelan oil industry, which will allow a number of companies in the United States to increase their investments legally, as well as a number of refineries in the United States to increase their imports of crude from the country, things have been yo yoing. But in general going down over the course of the last decade, Venezuela today is exporting significantly less than a million barrels a day. In fact, there have been some times where it’s almost dropped to zero. And American imports of that crude have also been dropping proportionally. And in fact, at some point, there have been several months where we didn’t import any at all. I don’t think it’s ever gotten above a half a million the last two years anyway, it’s not a lot anymore for an economy that uses or processes over 20 million barrels a day. Okay, what’s going on? Okay, number one, the Venezuelan system is run by a guy by the name of Nicolas Maduro, who is a former bus driver with no executive experience until he took over from Hugo Chavez, who was a kleptomaniac who basically stole the country into the ground. And so under Chavez and especially under Maduro, with a mismanagement has been extreme. And they and their allies had basically stolen everything that wasn’t nailed down, including a lot of stuff that was nailed down. A lot of this stuff was really dumb. So like, you know, you’d have a power plant, so they’d still the generators. I mean, it’s like the degree to which we had a kleptocracy here is pretty extreme. This is not socialism, let’s be clear. Socialism is where the government plays a directing role in the government. This was just flat out, theft, very different sort of system, we shouldn’t be afraid of this sort of system. Anyway, what Maduro has done, he’s loosened up some of his restrictions when it comes to political pluralism in the country, and basically allowing the opposition to participate in a series of elections. And the United States is sanctions are related to those elections. So by basically being a little bit less of a prick, the United States is decided to lessen some of the sanctions. We got three things going on here. First of all, the one that’s closest to home and probably the least significant, is the Biden administration’s official mantra is that high gasoline prices in the United States are largely a product of decisions that are made in the various OPEC producing countries rather than his own and policies at home, which is a bull weird, because the United States is the world’s largest producer of crude, and arguably now the second largest exporter in gross terms. So I mean, that the solution to our gasoline issue is to build up refining capacity in the United States that are not dependent on crude that come from abroad. Which brings us to the second issue, which is the crude that comes from abroad, American refiners new new and they were right, back in the 70s, and 80s, that the global supply of crude, the chemistry of that crude was changing. And we had used up most of the conventional crude that was light and sweet, which is another way of saying that it has very few impurities, whether it’s sulfur and mercury. And that light, sweet stuff tends to be very, very easy to refine. So what we did is we invest in hundreds of billions of dollars and retooling our entire industrial base in the refining sector, so that we could take heavy sour crudes, which were thick, maybe even solid at room temperature and may have been like three even 4%, sulfur by weight, and process that into finished fuels. The idea is we can use our technical acumen and our better capital position to take the world’s crappiest Croods and refine them into the world’s highest value add products. And so the margin buy low sell high, you know, that works, has worked very, very well for them over the last 30 years. And Venezuela is one of the sources of the heaviest crude in the world. And there are very, very, very few refineries in the world that can process this stuff except for the United States. And so when Chavez basically led his country on to a anti American Jihad and Maduro, Maduro, excuse me stuck with the ideology, American refiners became less and less interested because the Venezuelans were simultaneously driving their own industry to the ground. So the crude quality became very erratic, and the delivery volumes became erratic, and then delivery, reliability became very erratic. So even though they liked the chemistry of the crude, it became too widely for them to depend upon it. So they’ve shifted primarily to other sources, with Canadian oil sands now being the preferred input. This raises the possibility in the midterm, that we might be seeing some more Venezuelan crude come in, because honestly, there aren’t a lot of other places for it to go. There are a couple of refineries in India in China can take it in limited volumes. But then you have to ship it either around the Americas or through Panama, and recombined into a larger tanker on the other side of Panama and send that across the Pacific. It’s literally More than halfway around the world if you want to do by supertanker because you have to go all the way around the southern tip of South America, and then cross the Pacific the long way in order to get it to end destination. So the economics of that are questionable at best. And the only reason shipments have gone that direction is because the Venezuelans have taken huge hits. So what usually happens now is Indian or Chinese or Russian traders buy the crude in Venezuela, and then shipped to the north into the United States and pocket the difference, leaving it to the Venezuelan Government to hold the bag. It’s a delightful little trade, that is only possible because of really stupid ideologies, but it happens. Okay. The third, the future of the industry. Venezuelan crude is thick, it’s viscous and some of the stuff in Orinoco, you have to basically inject steam that several 100 degrees into the formation just to make it liquid in the first place. That means it has very high development costs, basically, for every barrel of production, you’re gonna get, you’re going to have to sink four to $8,000 into the well, given that one of the world’s higher development costs. It’s not clear that the foreigners are going to be that interested in investing. When you’ve got political issues, you’ve got technical issues, you’ve got infrastructure issues. And that’s even before you consider that the United States could always slap sanctions on again. So a small to moderate increase out of Venezuela, I think makes a certain amount of sense. But I’d be really shocked if over the next year, that amounts to more than maybe 300,000 barrels a day. I mean, that’s that’s not nothing. And considering what’s starting to bubble up in the Middle East with Iran, that might be really necessary. But if there is going to be a game changer in the industry, it’s not going to be Venezuela, that makes the difference. Now, I understand there’s a lot of people that think and it might and because it has in the past. If you remember back to the oil shocks of 73 to 79. It was Venezuela, that broke with OPEC and turned open the taps and expanded their production footprint in order to break the Arab oil embargo. And that had very long lasting implications for the market and for geopolitics. But you’d had a very different political system in Venezuela at the time. Back then it was the most advanced of the Latin American countries with a very technical government with high education standards and pretty good infrastructure. Now, after 25 years of slide, it’s at the bottom of both of those measures, and it just can’t do hardly any of the work itself. It has to come from abroad, and Venezuelans are gonna have to rebuild a degree of trust reliability before the investment will flow in in the billions and that is exactly what it would require. Okay, I’m done.

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