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Oil spills increase in Venezuela as it revs up output after the U.S. lifted sanctions

A work brigade sponsored by Venezuelan state-run oil company PDVSA, which critics blame for the oil spills, use shovels and rakes to remove congealed petroleum from a Lake Maracaibo beach.
John Otis for NPR
A work brigade sponsored by Venezuelan state-run oil company PDVSA, which critics blame for the oil spills, use shovels and rakes to remove congealed petroleum from a Lake Maracaibo beach.

LAKE MARACAIBO, Venezuela — On the western shore of Lake Maracaibo, workers use rakes and shovels to pull blobs of congealed oil out of the water, but the black goo sticks to everything — fishing nets, boats, outboard motors and even a calf that's wondering around the beach.

The oil slicks, which cover vast stretches of the lakeshore, are the result of constant leaks from underwater oil wells and a spaghetti of aging pipelines that run along the lake bottom. The mess has driven away beachgoers and decimated the fishing industry on Lake Maracaibo, an immense, brackish tidal bay connected to the Caribbean Sea.

"Some days the fish come back all covered in oil," says Joseiry Gotera, who manages a fishing cooperative on the lake. "You can't sell them. You have to throw them away."

After years of falling oil production amid the country's worst economic crisis in history, Venezuela is resurrecting its beleaguered petroleum industry. The country is now producing 850,000 barrels of oil per day, according to Deputy Oil Minister Erick Pérez, more than twice the amount that the country was pumping three years ago. At a conference in the country's capital of Caracas last week, Pérez predicted Venezuela would soon be producing 1 million barrels per day.

The country has a huge incentive to increase oil output because in October, Washington lifted oil sanctions against the country in exchange for pledges by Venezuela's authoritarian government to set ground rules for a free presidential election next year. That has allowed Venezuela to resume exporting oil to the United States rather than sell it on the black market at steep discounts.

Joseiry Gotera runs a fishing cooperative on Lake Maracaibo, where the PDVSA work brigade was cleaning up the spilled oil that can be seen behind her.
/ John Otis for NPR
/
John Otis for NPR
Joseiry Gotera runs a fishing cooperative on Lake Maracaibo, where the PDVSA work brigade was cleaning up the spilled oil that can be seen behind her.

But experts and Venezuelan residents who live near production sites say that due to the deterioration of oil facilities, ramping up output is causing more accidents.

The state-run oil company, PDVSA, which produces the vast majority of the country's oil, no longer publishes data on oil spills and did not respond to NPR's requests for comment. But according to a report published in January by the independent Observatory of Political Ecology of Venezuela, there were at least 86 oil spills and natural gas leaks in Venezuela last year, up from 77 in 2021

"The facilities that are in the hands of PDVSA are in terrible, terrible shape," says Francisco Monaldi, who directs the Latin America Energy Program at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston.

"I talked to service contractors that told me that things that were supposed to be done, say every two years, had not been done for eight years," he adds. PDVSA "basically stopped doing any maintenance."

Many of the accidents have occurred in or around Lake Maracaibo, which used to be ground zero for Venezuela's oil industry. The country's first major oil well was drilled here in 1914 and hundreds more followed. Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world and during the country's peak production year in 1970 it produced more than 3.7 million barrels per day.

The people of the lakeside community of Santa Rosa mostly avoid the tainted waters of Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. Kids play a lot of soccer but only a few dare venture into the lake.
/ John Otis for NPR
/
John Otis for NPR
The people of the lakeside community of Santa Rosa mostly avoid the tainted waters of Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. Kids play a lot of soccer but only a few dare venture into the lake.

But over the past decade, mismanagement, epic corruption scandals within PDVSA that saw billions of dollars in oil revenue go missing, and U.S. sanctions caused Venezuelan oil production to plummet. As the national economy collapsed, analysts say that PDVSA has cut back on maintenance and supervision, especially on Lake Maracaibo, where many pipelines and facilities are more than 50 years old.

One result is nearly constant leaks from pipelines, pumping stations and oil platforms, says Jesús Urbina, who works for the anti-corruption group Transparency International in western Venezuela. He says that decaying derricks, pumping stations and other machinery are tipping over and, in some cases, sinking in the lake.

Due to a lack of maintenance and supervision and aging facilities, oil spills have increased in Venezuela as the country tries to ramp up its oil production to take advantage of the recent lifting of U.S. oil sanctions.
/ John Otis for NPR
/
John Otis for NPR
Due to a lack of maintenance and supervision and aging facilities, oil spills have increased in Venezuela as the country tries to ramp up its oil production to take advantage of the recent lifting of U.S. oil sanctions.

"Every single day we have an oil spill. Not only one, but three, four, five," Urbina says.

"It's an immense wreck of oil installations."

A U.S. Agency for International Development report last year noted that many of Venezuela's oil facilities are located within 30 miles of protected areas and said that contamination from the industry poses the main threat to country's marine ecosystems. Oil spills have also contaminated drinking water in some areas of the country, the report said.

Every single day we have an oil spill.

Servando Ortega, a PDVSA employee who works on an oil platform on Lake Maracaibo, told NPR that spills and accidents are caused by years of disinvestment in the oil industry and poor management. He also complained of a lack of spare parts, which he blamed partly on the sanctions the U.S. slapped on Venezuelan oil in 2019. The Trump administration said the sanctions aimed to prevent the government of President Nicolás Maduro from "plundering" Venezuela's assets and resources at the expense of its people.

"We have to work with our fingernails to keep the oil flowing," Ortega says.

For years, the oil spills had been mostly confined to the lake's southern and eastern shores and were less visible. But over the past year, large oil slicks have fouled the beaches of the lakeside metropolis of Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-biggest city, making them much harder for Venezuelan authorities to ignore.

In July, Maduro toured the lake and made vague promises to clean up the mess.

Spilled oil can ruin fishing nets and outboard motors and harm wildlife and livestock, including this calf that wandered onto a Lake Maracaibo beach and is trying to lick off the oil stuck to its body.
/ John Otis for NPR
/
John Otis for NPR
Spilled oil can ruin fishing nets and outboard motors and harm wildlife and livestock, including this calf that wandered onto a Lake Maracaibo beach and is trying to lick off the oil stuck to its body.

"I have received denunciations of oil spills and how they affect fishing communities," Maduro said in a speech. "I have ordered a special plan to clean up Lake Maracaibo. ... Beautiful Lake Maracaibo has to be saved. I demand this, and this is what we will achieve, sooner or later."

But except for the rake and shovel-wielding cleanup crews that are financed by PDVSA, there's little sign of government action.

An injection of foreign capital could help. But Monaldi, the Rice University analyst, says it will be difficult to entice international energy companies to invest in the oil industry around the lake due to environmental liabilities.

In the meantime, volunteers are pitching in. One group is collecting hair from barbershops to make biodegradable floating barriers to soak up oil spills on the lake. It's a small step, but the project's director, Selene Estrach, says she's trying to get average citizens involved in the cleanup.

Indeed, most people now try to avoid its tainted waters. In the lakeside community of Santa Rosa, lots of youngsters were playing soccer but hardly anyone was swimming. The degradation of the lake prompted Santa Rosa artist Dani Ortega to compose a song — which ends on a grim note.

Dani Ortega, an artist in the lakeside community of Santa Rosa, has composed a song about the oil spills on the lake. The song ends in a lament: "No more contamination, they are killing off the lake."
/ John Otis for NPR
/
John Otis for NPR
Dani Ortega, an artist in the lakeside community of Santa Rosa, has composed a song about the oil spills on the lake. The song ends in a lament: "No more contamination, they are killing off the lake."

"No more contamination," he beseeches in the final verse. "They are killing off the lake."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Otis