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Why Venezuela's crisis could send oil prices above $100 a barrel

Dion Rabouin
Financial Markets Reporter

As Sunday’s presidential election looms in Venezuela, many analysts are warning that further turmoil could be headed for the country and that could push oil prices to more than $100 a barrel.

Brent crude oil futures prices have already hit a three-and-a-half-year high above $80 a barrel thanks in large part to the worsening outlook for Venezuela, which is home to the world’s largest oil reserves.That’s helped drive the price of a gallon of gasoline in the United States to an average of $2.91, according to AAA.

Prices could streak higher in the near future as the Latin American nation’s production shifts even further amid the country’s crisis.

In this June 24, 2017 file photo, Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro oversees a military parade on Army Day at Fort Tiuna in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

“The drop in Venezuela’s oil production has been an important element of the rise in global prices for oil, there’s no doubt about it,” said Marcelo Carvalho, head of emerging market research, Latam at investment bank BNP Paribas.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) last year imposed an oil production cut that will last until at least the end of this year in order to clear an oversupply of crude that had been weighing on prices. OPEC member Venezuela’s oil production has been so restricted because of the worsening crisis in the country, Carvalho said, that it’s like an additional production cut.

“The type of numbers we’re talking about there are comparable to the OPEC [cuts] for the overall group, so one country alone is doing what the whole group promised to cut back,” he told Yahoo Finance during an investor presentation at the bank’s New York offices. “It’s that order of magnitude. It’s big already and we don’t know how far it goes.”

‘There is a lack of everything’

Under terms of the OPEC agreement, signed in 2017, member states are cutting supply by about 1.8 million barrels per dayVenezuela’s crude production has fallen by 800,000 barrels per day over the past two years, from 2.3 million in January 2016 to 1.5 million in April, according to the U.S. Energy Information Association and OPEC estimates. And that number continues to decline. The number of oil rigs in operation also has fallen by half in just the past five years.

Luisa Palacios, managing director for Latin America at Medley Global Advisors, is expecting the country’s production to fall to historic lows. Oil production could drop to 1.1 million barrels per day within a year, she said, having already touched a 33-year low.

“There’s going to be a collapse,” Palacios said.

Things are poised to get worse with no sign of change on the horizon as Venezuela’s massive debt load, unrest in the workforce, hyperinflation, and failing equipment — a result of underinvestment and misuse — curtail future growth.

“There is a lack of machines, there is a lack of tools, there is a lack of everything,” Patrick Pouyanne, chief executive of French energy company Total, which has operations in Venezuela, told analysts during a call in April.

Schlumberger (SLB), the world’s largest oil services company, has described Venezuelan oil production as being in “freefall.”

A continued drag on supply could send oil above $100

Venezuela’s state-run oil firm Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., or PDVSA, also is now being targeted by ConocoPhillips, which won a $2 billion arbitration against the oil giant and has begun seizing its assets. Helima Croft, head of global commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, told Yahoo Finance other international creditors owed money by the company could soon take similar action.

That along with worsening conditions in the Middle East — the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, Saudi Arabia’s escalating conflict in Yemen and the ongoing battle in Syria that has also entangled major oil producer Russia — could certainly push oil prices above the $100 point this year, Croft said.

Venezuela has an election on Sunday in which President Nicolas Maduro is expected to win by a wide margin, not because he is popular but because he has barred serious challengers from entering the race by force or threats of jail time. That could bring more sanctions from the United States and other world powers, further crippling the country’s oil industry.

Even if Maduro is driven from the presidency in the near future, which analysts say is a long-shot, Croft believes that the damage that’s already been done in Venezuela means it won’t get back to pumping crude the way it did in its heyday for quite some time. That means a drag on the global supply of oil and inflated prices.

“A lot of market participants have the view that once Maduro is gone you can quickly restart production,” Croft said. “But given the depths of despair in that country’s oil sector, reviving production is going to be extremely difficult and is going to require a major effort from the international community.”

Without action from OPEC to get major producers like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq pumping oil again at high levels or a massive increase in supply from the United States, oil prices could go higher and stay there for some time.


Dion Rabouin is a markets reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @DionRabouin.

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