The Oil Export Crisis Has Arrived

February 8, 2010 at 11:53 am
Contributed by: Chris

For Energy and Capital last week, I took a close look at the declining oil exports of Venezuela and Mexico, and saw U.S. imports taking the brunt of the loss. The recession has masked the decline of exports, but we’re going to feel it soon.

The Oil Export Crisis Has Arrived

Venezuela and Mexico: The Point of the Exports Spear

By Chris Nelder
Friday, February 5th, 2010

Last March, my study of the effect of peak oil on U.S. imports had brought Mexico to the fore (“The Impending Oil Export Crisis”). As our #3 source of imports, the crashing of its supergiant Cantarell field had put the future of our oil supply into serious jeopardy.

The possibility that Mexico’s oil and gas exports to the U.S. could go to zero within seven years looked very real.

As I explained in that piece, rising domestic consumption coupled with declining supply puts an ever-tightening squeeze on imports. I have found no evidence that policymakers are paying any attention to this critically important dynamic, but it is the very point of the peak oil spear.

Were it not for the market meltdown and recession, it would have pierced our vital organs. Instead we felt a pinprick. Hardly anybody realized what it really was, and most ran off on a wild goose chase for evil oil speculators.

Now Venezuela has appeared on my radar for similar reasons…only this time we’re really going to feel it.

Let’s begin with a review of Mexico’s exports.


Shortly after publishing that article, I casually remarked to my friend and fellow energy analyst Gregor Macdonald that Cantarell’s production could fall to under 0.5 million barrels per day (mbpd) by the end of the year.

I arrived at this somewhat startling conclusion by calculating the effect of its decline rate–at the time, 38% and accelerating–on production of 0.77 mbpd in January, down precipitously from its 2.1 mbpd peak in 2003.

Gregor’s recent data sleuthing on Cantarell found its production in December 2009 was 0.527688 mbpd, just a hair above my estimate.

To update the data on Mexico, it’s now our #2 source of imported petroleum because Saudi Arabia has fallen from #2 to #4. As of November 2009 (the latest data available) the U.S. imported 1.08 mbpd of crude and finished petroleum products from Mexico. Its exports to the U.S. peaked at 1.46 mbpd in 2004, the same year as its production peaked. Net exports (production minus consumption) fell to 1.06 mbpd in 2008.

mexico petroleum supply%2C exports to US

Mexico Petroleum Supply, Exports to U.S. and Net Exports. Source: EIA. Chart by Chris Nelder.

For the years 2005 to 2008, Mexico’s exports to the U.S. declined by 0.51 mbpd. In 2010, supply is expected to fall to 2.5 mbpd–nearly half a million barrels per day less than 2009.

Mexico nationalized its petroleum operations in 1938 in a constitutional amendment and handed over total control to the state oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), with predictable results.

Oil now provides more than 40% of the country’s revenues, which have been used to pay for a vast array of public services and line the pockets of the oligarchy while starving investment in both upstream activities (new oil supply) and downstream (finished products).

Consequently, Mexico’s oil reserves have decreased by more than 75% in two decades (owing partly to the correction of a previous, ridiculously inflated figure), production has begun to decline, and exports are falling fast. It now imports $4.5 billion a year worth of gasoline, $10 billion a year in petrochemicals, and 25% of its natural gas, mostly from the U.S.

This despite having nearly 13 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and more than 50 billion barrels of (unproven) reserve potential. Mexico would be in a far better position, were it not for its hostile stance on foreign participation. PEMEX simply lacks the technical ability to develop its more difficult, remaining resources–particularly deepwater.


As of November, the U.S. was importing 0.9 mbpd from Venezuela, making it our #3 source. Its exports to the U.S. peaked at 1.8 mbpd in 1997, the same year as its production peaked. Net exports (production minus consumption) have fallen 38% from the 1997 peak of 3.1 mbpd to 1.9 mbpd in 2008.

Venezuela’s oil exports to the U.S. have been declining markedly since 2004, after a long period of relative stability. From 2004 through 2009, Venezuelan petroleum exports fell 0.7 mbpd.

venezuela petrol supply exports to US

Venezuela Petroleum Supply, Exports to U.S. and Net Exports. Source: EIA. Chart by Chris Nelder.

Like Mexico, Venezuela is endowed with enormous energy resources, and could be producing at a far higher level. Estimates of its oil reserves range from 153 billion barrels of certified proven, to 513 billion barrels technically recoverable in the USGS’ January estimate, to 1.5 trillion barrels in offshore potential if you believe the effervescent Dr. Marcio Mello of Brazil. Most of it is heavy oil, a low grade which must be upgraded to synthetic crude.

And like Mexico, President Hugo Chavez has exiled the Western oil companies who might have made the investment to bring those resources to market.

A Nation in Free Fall

The good times rolled for Chavez in the first years after his election in 1998. His socialist programs to rebuild the country and raise its the standard of living were popular, but expensive, and soon began to fail under the crush of declining energy supply.

Oil revenues make up 90% of Venezuela’s foreign earnings, so its dependence on oil exports is extreme.

Billions of dollars in profits from the national oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) were diverted to welfare programs and into the pockets of oligarchs, while investment in future petroleum and power supply languished.

The precipitous drop in oil prices since mid-2008 only compounded the revenue shortfall.

Oil production has fallen 25% since Chavez was elected, and a long, devastating drought has cut into its hydropower supply, of which 73% comes from the massive Guri Dam.

Chavez responded by nationalizing most of its petroleum operations and its grid in 2007.

In 2009 another 76 oil services companies on the Maracaibo Lake were taken over. The projects now sit abandoned, waiting for PDVSA to compensate the displaced operators and put them back into operation.

Almost half a million hectares of land were seized in 2009, with the rationalization that it was underused.

Measures to counter the declining hydro supply have been implemented in a haphazard fashion, resulting in frequent, unscheduled blackouts, including seven national blackouts since 2007. Malls and government offices have had their hours of operation cut, and water rationing has been imposed.

“Some people sing in the bath for half an hour,” Chávez cried at a cabinet session in October. “What kind of communism is that? Three minutes is more than enough!”

In January, a wave of public protest erupted, prompting Chavez to implement a rapid series of desperate measures.

  • Rolling blackouts were imposed in the capital city of Caracas. After a few days of protests, Chavez lifted the blackouts and fired the electricity minister. Blackouts are expected to be reinstated in an effort to keep hydro reservoir levels from falling to the point of collapse.
  • A recent report gave the power shortage a paradoxical twist, indicating that power from one of the state refineries may have to be diverted to the grid, cutting distillate output by 200,000 barrels per day or more. This will result in less heating oil for China, who will make up the loss by burning more coal.
  • Chavez devalued Venezuela’s bolivar currency by half, and nationalized a chain of French-owned supermarkets over alleged price gouging.
  • He ordered cutbacks in the operation of state-run steel and aluminum manufacturing operations, which account for up to 20% of the country’s power demand.
  • This week he turned to Cuba for help on how to cope with the power shortage, since it has been through similar problems. The island nation is providing tens of thousands of energy-efficient lightbulbs and cloud-seeding technology to Venezuela.
  • Last weekend, he forced six television channels off the air for failing to broadcast one of his speeches (up to six hours in length) in a continuation of his campaign for “communicational hegemony.” Since December, all radio and television networks are required by law to broadcast his speeches live, whenever he chooses to make one.
  • Nationwide student marches have been met by troops armed with rubber bullets, and at least two deaths have been recorded.

Chavez has said he’s prepared to take “radical measures” should the situation worsen, begging the unsettling question of what could be more radical than what he has already done.

Looking East, Not North

Now Chavez is turning east for help in developing his nation’s oil and gas resources. Recent agreements include a $20 billion joint venture with Russia to develop the Junin 6 field in the Orinoco oil belt, with a potential top production rate of 450,000 barrels per day.

China has agreed to build a refinery and develop the Orinoco heavy oil fields, and Venezuela has guaranteed 560,000 barrels per day to China this year.

Venezuela has launched its first major auction for drilling rights in more than a decade, for access to areas east of the existing operations in the Orinoco. Developing the leases will be expensive because of their distance from the existing infrastructure, and winning bidders are expected to make offers in the $10 billion-plus range including early payments of at least $1 billion, financing plans, and commitments to build the necessary roads, pipelines, ports and upgraders. Potential bidders include Spain’s Repsol, Japan’s Mitsubishi, the U.K.’s BP, and Chevron.

Given the sheer size of its resources, it’s too soon to declare the end of Venezuela’s glory days in the oil patch. However it does seem likely that the new barrels it brings to market will be headed east, not north, and Western producers will have very little stake in the projects.

Chavez will put exports to the U.S. on a short path to zero the first chance he gets.

Oh Imports, Where Art Thou?

The combined decline in imports from Mexico and Venezuela for 2005 through 2008 is 0.89 mbpd. If the trend continues in 2009, then over 1 mbpd will have disappeared from the U.S. import stream in the last five years–an 8% decline from 2004 levels.

Since 2007, the loss of production from Cantarell alone was 0.7 mbpd, but the recession cut U.S. demand by 2 mbpd, effectively masking the decline. Which raises the question: If U.S. demand rises from here, where will those barrels come from…and how much will they cost?

The U.S. is not only first in the world in its demand for oil, but in paying the market rate for it. Nobody else buys 8.5 mbpd of crude at retail.

Drivers in Venezuela are still filling up for 25 cents a gallon even as their exports decline.

Mexico’s gasoline prices are more on par with the U.S., but its consumption has been rising steadily since 1997 and continues to cut into exports.

Saudi Arabia’s domestic consumption is currently growing at the rate of 7% per year, following a trend of more than three decades. It uses a whopping 1.5 mbpd–1.8% of total world oil supply!–to desalinate water, at the equivalent of 7 cents a gallon. Before the OPEC cuts of 2009, its exports to the U.S. had essentially flatlined at 1.5 mbpd since 2004.

Exports from our #5 source, Nigeria, have also declined, from 1.17 mbpd in 2005 to 0.98 mbpd in 2008.

In fact, of the top five oil exporting countries to the U.S., representing 63% of our crude imports, only Canada posted an increase, of 0.2 mbpd.

The combined annual net oil exports from our top three exporting countries–Canada, Mexico and Venezuela–illustrate our situation:

oil exports us%2C canada%2C mexico

Combined Annual Net Oil Exports From Canada, Mexico and Venezuela. Source: Jeffrey J. Brown, Samuel Foucher, PhD, Jorge Silveus.

Given the very modest increases from unconventional domestic production and Canada, the decline of imports from Mexico and Venezuela means the U.S. will be increasingly forced to depend on suppliers farther afield–the very same suppliers that China has been buying into in size. The “collision course with China” that I wrote about in July 2005 has nearly reached the point of impact.

It also means that when oil prices rise again, the pain will be far greater for the U.S. than it is for our top suppliers. Next time, the spear of declining oil exports will puncture a lung.

The oil export crisis has arrived. We just haven’t felt it yet.

Production, consumption, and export data herein is the latest available from the EIA.

Until next time,


Thanks to the following individuals for their contributions to this article: Venezuelan oil expert Carlos Rossi for sharing excerpts from his forthcoming book, The Completion of the Oil Era: The Economic Impact; Gregor Macdonald for sharing his data on Cantarell; and Jeffrey Brown and Samuel Foucher, for their work on net exports data and the Export Land Model.

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