Venezuela has the world's largest reserves of crude oil, but government subsidies for domestic fuel consumption have contributed to an economic crisis (image: Sociedad Venezolano Ingenieros de Petróleo)
Venezuela, the country with the world’s largest proven reserves of crude oil, is not only the first Latin American gasoline consumer, but also Latin America’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter per person. Public spending policies, which have been supported by loans from China, have come under scrutiny in international for contradicting environmental norms.
Over the past few years, the Venezuelan government has promoted mining and hydrocarbons projects and imported vehicles that increase pollution.
But the story of the Venezuelan state’s peripheral role in international climate negotiations and the huge financial support of its oil sector, which provides cheap fuel to consumers through price subsidy can be traced back over 20 years.
Venezuela has long been the country with the cheapest gasoline in the world. Prior to February 18, prices for refined oil products, above all diesel and petrol, last changed in 1996. A previous attempt to raise them in 1989 under the second administration of Carlos Andres Perez is infamously credited with causing the Caracazo street protests and the subsequent violent crackdown.
Prices remained frozen under the entire 14-year presidency of Hugo Chavez.
The consequence of keeping prices artificially low has been a devaluation in real terms of the price of combustible liquids owing to the soaring rate of inflation of the country’s currency, the Bolívar.
World Bank data indicates that Venezuela consumed an average of 1,272 litres of fuel per year in 2014, owing to the luxury of having to pay just one US cent per litre. Yet Maduro’s raise of the highest octane fuel to 60 US cents per litre, based on the official exchange rate of 10 Bolivars per US$, looks set to change very little.
Taking into account the exchange rate controls that have been in place in Venezuela since 2003, fuel prices equate to literally zero dollars per litre. As of February, a US dollar would fetch 1000 Bolivars on the country’s black market.
Keeping prices far lower than those responsive to international markets has caused a booming contraband fuel trade with neighbouring countries Colombia and Brazil, and with Caribbean islands. An estimated 30,000 barrels per day leave Venezuela illegally (although some sources suggest this figure is closer to 100,000 barrels), further stimulating recorded levels of domestic consumption.
Domestic oil demand equates to around eight to ten barrels per year, according to World Bank data, while this figure is 6.5 barrels in Mexico, 5.3 in Argentina and Brazil and falls to 3.7 barrels per year in Colombia.
This correlates with Venezuela’s CO2 emissions. Venezuelans emit 6.4 metric tonnes of carbon per person per year, a level similar to that of China (6.7 metric tonnes). The rest of Latin America registers much lower figures: Argentina, 4.6; Mexico, 3.9; Brazil, 2.2; and Colombia, 1.6.
A 2007 initiative of then president Hugo Chavez, which sought to reduce Venezuela’s trade and investment relationship with the US, has ushered in a round of finance from other countries, above all China.
This money has gone into propping up domestic fossil fuel industries.
The majority of a US$20 billion long-term loan agreement from China Development Bank (CDB), half of which is renminbi-denominated, was received by state-owned oil company PDVSA in return for crude oil or diesel.
A large proportion has also gone into funding infrastructure projects. Resources channeled into the ‘China Fund’ – which has received around US$51 billion from CDB – were spent on big infrastructure projects, such as the addition of new lines to the Caracas Metro system. Similar projects were introduced in the cities of Maracaibo, with the construction of two new bridges over the Orinoco River and Valencia, with the development of the rail network.
Some of the fund was used to purchase finished products from China, such as household electrical items and around 20,000 family vehicles made by Chery Automobile worth US$50 million.
“This massive purchase is based on the negotiations for a large and long-term China-Venezuela fund to introduce to our market high-quality, economical vehicles which have available parts and after-sales service,” then minister of trade Edmée Betancourt said in late 2011, when Hugo Chavez’s electoral campaign for a second reelection was in full swing.
The other parts of the purchase agreement to supply vehicles were progressively introduced in 2013 and 2014, but four years after the first wave of car imports, domestic automobile manufacturing is struggling. Problems also persist with the supply of parts and servicing of the imported Chinese vehicles amid claims they fail to comply with emissions standards.
No Paris agreement
The expensive fuel subsidy, has meant that Venezuela has been criticised in international forums which examine the individual countries’ commitment to reducing greenhouse gasses.
Headed by Ambassador Claudia Salerno, the Venezuelan delegation at the UN’s Paris conference avoided making a firm commitment to reducing GHG emissions by 20%. The delegation did not consider the progressive substitution of fossil fuels and technologies linked to the hydrocarbon sector for cleaner alternatives. Nor did it mention the proposed or current actions undertaken by PDVSA compared to other big oil companies, which have begun to diversify into cleaner projects such as wind and solar.
Green groups have objected to extractive projects promoted by the Venezuelan government over the past three years – most of which are financed by resources form China and which have operated on the edge of the remit of the country’s environmental authorities. There has been a distinct lack of detail on how funds are allocated to projects.
It did not go unnoticed that President Maduro was one of the few national leaders absent from the Paris conference. OPEC nations such as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia were criticised for not tackling their enormous fuel subsidies, which inhibit a culture of efficiency and energy saving.
article was previously published by Diálogo
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