Venezuela’s PDVSA Fails to Curb Oil Leaks, Gas Flaring Despite Pledges

(Reuters) — Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA has failed to make any dent in its oil spill or gas flaring woes, despite nascent promises of environmental clean-up by President Nicolas Maduro's government, according to people within the company, industry sources and an internal company document seen by Reuters.

PDVSA's failures on the environmental front underline how lack of staffing and investment stemming from Venezuela's economic crisis and U.S. sanctions is affecting not only its output and finances, but also the communities where it operates, say industry analysts and environmentalists.

Even as the company aims to boost production this year, residents and environmentalists are denouncing what they say are ever-worsening spills and pollution in Lake Maracaibo and increased gas flaring in Monagas, affecting human health, wildlife and ecosystems.

Maduro pledged in July to clean up western Lake Maracaibo, citing what he said were "oil overflows," and the government also has long-term plans to capture gas in the eastern state of Monagas, according to a source at the company with knowledge of the effort.

PDVSA and the environment ministry have also pledged environmental efforts that do not address spills and flaring, like a plan to plant five million cashew trees in oil areas.

All the plans lack stated investments or timelines.

"The government starts (plans) but in the end doesn't bring them to a close, or does them for a certain amount of time and then forgets them," said engineer and environmental analyst Ausberto Quero.

It would cost more than $3 billion to repair old tubing and other equipment which leaks crude into Lake Maracaibo and to install the capture technology needed to lower flaring in Monagas, analyst Nelson Hernandez said.

Pedro Tellechea, Venezuela's oil minister and president of PDVSA, recently urged the development of a greener hydrocarbon industry, but said there were "almost zero" spills in Lake Maracaibo.

Any oil was from previous leaks, he said, and tubing was being fixed or replaced. Any "decomposition" in the lake, long tinted black and spangled with green algae, was just visual, Tellechea said.

The oil ministry, PDVSA, the attorney general's office and the ministry of communications all failed to respond to requests for comment.

"With a much lower level of oil production, the share of accidents has been much higher," said ex-PDVSA director Cesar Rodriguez, who left the company in 2002.

Even as PDVSA looks to push production to 1 million barrels of oil per day by the end of the year, the company has no plan to address environmental concerns across the country, according to a document seen by Reuters.

While the document mentions a plan to clean up an oil zone in Barinas state, the status of the initiative is "to be confirmed."

In July, PDVSA published a report on its website detailing some 11,492 spills in the year 2017, but the document was hastily removed.

Still available is the report for 2016, which tallies more than 8,000 spills, four times higher than the number reported in 1999.

At least 200,000 barrels of oil have leaked in Venezuela in recent years, former PDVSA employees monitoring spills estimate, based on company data, local media reports and videos of spills posted on social media.

Eduardo Klein, a geo-spacial expert at Simon Bolivar University, however, said it was not possible to know with certainty how many barrels had been spilled, only the estimated affected surface area.

Meanwhile, the country’s science academy says PDVSA's contingency plan against spills is not being implemented correctly.

From East to West

While Maduro blames Washington for the state of Venezuela's oil industry, analysts say PDVSA's lack of maintenance and contingency plans long predate U.S. sanctions.

In Monagas, PDVSA vents and burns some 1.7 billion cubic feet of gas per day, according to consulting firm Gas Energy Latin America.

As PDVSA lacks the technology to capture or process the gas, it flares the fuel at the well site, producing a cocktail of chemical vapors, including greenhouse gases, which tinge the night sky red.

"Sometimes the flares expel burnt material, which falls on house roofs. Flames, not waste, should shoot out, but sometimes they expel residue," said former oil industry worker Antonio Camacho, 48, who lives in Potrerito, Monagas, two kilometers (1.2 miles) from PDVSA's facilities.

The community has also suffered oil spills, which residents say have damaged crops and contaminated soil.

The western Amuay refinery, in Falcon state, burns 24 million cubic feet of gas per day because units needed to capture it are shut down, a person familiar with the matter said.

Oil also escapes through cracks in the pipeline that carries it to the refinery, contaminating water supplies and affecting local residents, fish and marine wildlife, the person said.

Venezuela was the 17th largest emitter of methane from flaring and leaks in 2022, according the International Energy Agency.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and scientists warn its heat-trapping potential is greater than that of carbon dioxide.

According to the World Bank's Global Gas Flaring Tracker, the nine countries that flare gas the most – which includes Russia, Iran, Venezuela, the U.S. and Mexico – account for nearly three-quarters of total global flaring.

The oil leaking from kilometers of pipelines, which extend through the depths of Lake Maracaibo and connect decrepit infrastructure, is an environmental and public health problem, said analyst Quero and oceanologist and consultant Klaus Essig.

The Sotalia Project, which monitors populations of Guiana dolphins in the area, found specimens with up to 2 milligrams of the heavy metal mercury per kilogram, when the minimum acceptable level is 0.05 milligrams per kilogram.

Those high levels of mercury - possibly a product of oil contamination - could pose a health risk to locals who hunt and eat the dolphins and local fish.

"Living on the beach went from being a dream come true to a nightmare," said housewife Ana Aurora Montilla, 54, who lives near the lake.

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