Why Are More and More Oil Spills Happening in Venezuela?

The Venezuelan Observatory of Political Ecology interviews oil expert Einstein Millan about the recent increase in oil spills in the country.

By Venezuelan Observatory of Political Ecology (OEPV)
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An oil spill in El Tigre, eastern Venezuela, in 2018. (Bloomberg)
An oil spill in El Tigre, eastern Venezuela, in 2018. (Bloomberg)

Venezuelan authorities and communities have been struggling to clean up an oil spill off its northern coast in Carabobo and Falcon States since August 1.

According to the Venezuelan Ecological Society, around 20,000 barrels of oil were spilled about 12 kilometres out to sea in an area rich in coral and marine life.

While the causes of the latest spill are still unknown, and a parliamentary investigation has begun, government spokespersons have blamed an offshore tanker. Other voices have pointed to nearby state-run refineries, such as El Palito, also indicating that there were secondary spills on August 9 and 11.

Given the persistent oil spills in Venezuela and the serious environmental impacts they cause in the short and long term, The Venezuelan Observatory of Political Ecology (OEPV) conducted this interview with oil expert Einstein Millán to learn more about the structural causes of this serious socio-environmental threat and the ways in which the problem is being managed by the industry.

What do you think is the current status of accidents at Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA)?

The situation at PDVSA is delicate, with recurrent “incidents” that have been worsening since 2007-08. Reports indicate that less than 10,000 barrels of oil were spilled per year before that date, a figure which has increased to more than 150,000 recently. Likewise, less than 200 accidents were reported per year in 2007-08, and this number has risen to more than 4,000 on average in 2017.

After 2017, the arrival of [PDVSA president between 2017 and 2020] Manuel Quevedo and now [PDVSA President] Asdrubal Chávez, introduced a strategy of preventing access to information concerning these incidents, as well as failing to report such events and even misinforming. Despite this, a noticeable leap in the type and severity of accidents and environmental crimes and incidents is evident.

PDVSA’s environmental crimes, incidents and accidents since 1997 to 2017. The red bars indicate the number of accidents and incidents while the green line represents the total number of spilled oil barrels that year. (Einstein Millán)

Why has this level been reached? What are the causes?

At first, "accident" rates and environmental crimes in PDVSA increased exponentially due to the indiscriminate growth of an unprepared workforce with little adherence to safety, health and environmental protection (SHE) regulations and a lack of a "proactive" maintenance culture. This workforce also included personnel who had been absorbed from expropriated companies with foreign cultures and work ethics, which were incompatible with PDVSA’s vertically integrated oil industry.

Apart from the above, an important portion of PDVSA’s board and management, inherited by [Rafael] Ramirez from 2007-08, was not prepared with the proper SHE training.

From 2015-16, the industry entered a stage of "divestment,” an absence of corporate values or an insufficiently prepared leadership lacking in experience in roles of responsibility within the oil industry. Likewise, this leadership showed an obvious ignorance of the risks involved in the various components of the business value chain.

The combination of "divestment,” rampant corruption, a lack of checks and lousy leadership has led to premature aging of the core infrastructure and increased exposure to catastrophic events, such as the ones seen recently.

In your view, how is the company's environmental management and approach, and what is its impact?

There is no coordinated approach within the Venezuelan oil industry, there is no measurement and evaluation of risk factors in the processes and operations which might look to prevent and/or mitigate events and/or their effects.

There is no "proactive" culture of maintenance, only a reactive one. There is a politicised misinformation machinery which does not seem to care about the downstream consequences of spills, emissions, accidents and incidents, but rather hides and denies information later revealed by non-PDVSA sources.

What are your expectations for the future? Are we at risk of major accidents similar to the [2012] Amuay refinery fire?

The short-term outlook is a reserved forecast which will tend to worsen in the absence of maintenance and the absence of SHE values and culture.

The Venezuelan industry, institutions and society are not prepared to protect our assets, resources, or the environment, nor are they willing to apply environmental legislation with all its weight.

There have been multiple accidents and catastrophic spills in the Orinoco Oil Belt, for example, which have gone unnoticed without any consequences.

Neighbouring countries like Trinidad and Tobago and Colombia have made a habit of damaging and polluting our coasts and rivers, and the Venezuelan state, its institutions and society remain idle, as if nothing happens.

Our ecosystem, our industry and our resources are repeatedly damaged from within PDVSA and no one suffers any consequences.

What proposal or alternative can be applied to the situation?

Our proposal is simple: enforce the law with severity. Educate our citizens, politicians and leaders to lead our companies and institutions concerning the need to protect the environment, our industries and our resources today, so that we may guarantee a better future for upcoming generations and our beloved homeland.

Einstein Millán is an international "Upstream" oil and gas advisor in the Middle East with a doctorate and other studies from The University of Oklahoma (US) and the Universidad del Oriente (Venezuela). He held various management and supervisory positions at PDVSA between 1979 and 2010 before going on to work as a gas development consultant for Kuwait’s oil company. He led the Venezuelan intergovernmental technical team in the nationalisation of the oil industry and has published more than 12 specialized works and written more than 300 opinion papers on the topic.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.

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