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SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE: Chavez putting up a fight to get even bigger stake in oil Venezuela’s rich reserves give it bargaining power

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

El Tigre, Venezuela — On the hot, shrub-covered plains around this dusty, dingy town, an odd courtship is being carried out between the world’s most prominent revolutionary and the world’s biggest oil companies.

Just as there is no love between President Hugo Chavez and the Bush administration, there is little love lost between Chavez and the foreign oilmen who are pumping up the huge reservoirs of underground oil. But they need each other. The United States needs Venezuela to help quench its bottomless thirst for oil, and Chavez needs America to buy it from him in order to fund his dreams of spreading his leftist ideology around the hemisphere.

The stakes here are huge. The area around El Tigre, known as the Orinoco Oil Belt, possesses the world’s biggest petroleum reserves — 1.3 trillion barrels of so-called extra-heavy oil. Chevron, Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips and dozens of other foreign firms are here, using recently developed technologies to extract the tarlike, sulfurous crude and refine it.

“Everyone agrees that the Orinoco Belt has the biggest reserves in the world,” said Alberto Quiros, a Chavez critic and former president of Royal Dutch Shell’s Venezuela operations. “What Chavez will do with them is another question, but there’s no doubt that Venezuela will take Saudi Arabia’s place as No. 1.”

Chavez already is forcing U.S.-based Chevron and other oil companies to swallow some bitter pills.

In the past two years, he has raised foreign oil companies’ corporate income tax to 50 percent from 30 percent and increased royalties payable to the government from as low as 1 percent to 33 percent. After he threatened to confiscate their operations elsewhere in Venezuela, 26 foreign oil companies, including Chevron, agreed earlier this year to convert their operations into joint ventures with the state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela (known as Pdvsa), with the government holding the majority share. Two European firms — Total of France and ENI of Italy — refused, and Chavez promptly expelled them.

Now, the government is demanding similar concessions at the four Orinoco Belt operations, in which Chevron, Exxon Mobil and others have invested about $17 billion. The government is demanding that Pdvsa’s ownership share of the projects be increased from an average of 40 percent to at least 51 percent and that Pdvsa take over operational control of the oilfields.

Negotiations over these demands are coming to a head, and the outcome may influence whether Venezuela’s rising tensions with Washington subside or even escalate. Analysts say foreign companies may seek international arbitration to block Chavez’s takeover attempt.

“It will be quite a fight,” said Gersan Zurita, an oil-industry analyst with Fitch Ratings in New York, which advises investors who have purchased $3.9 billion in bonds for the Orinoco Belt projects. In June, Fitch Ratings downgraded the projects’ credit scores, saying Chavez’s demands could damage the projects’ viability.

But for Chavez, it’s a matter of national pride — and political bragging points. Around the country, the government has put up posters and billboards showing Chavez extending his arms in a victory salute, accompanied by the slogan, “Full oil sovereignty: Joint ventures — more benefits for the people!”

As top-secret negotiations begin, all sides in the conflict have tried to keep a low profile. Chevron, Exxon and ConocoPhillips declined Chronicle requests to interview their officials and to visit their installations in Venezuela.

Zurita said the companies fear being blacklisted by Chavez and losing future oil deals.

Luis Giusti, president of Pdvsa from 1994 to 1999, said many companies have little choice but to look to Venezuela because their reserves elsewhere are dwindling and their access to the Middle East is limited by the firm grip of those nations’ government monopolies. and its sister non-profit websites,,,,,, and are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia feature.

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