Venezuela's commercial oil exports nearly halted as reviews expand
By Marianna Parraga and Deisy Buitrago
HOUSTON/CARACAS, March 23 (Reuters) -Expanded oil export contract reviews at Venezuela's state-run PDVSA have nearly halted all commercial crude and fuel releases, as officials seek to match past invoices with payments, according to documents and people familiar with the matter.
An anti-corruption probe has led to the recent arrests of about 20 PDVSA employees, judges and politicians, and prompted the resignation of powerful oil minister Tareck El Aissami. An oil export suspension that first began in January under El Aissami has worsened, internal documents showed.
PDVSA, which accounts for most of the OPEC nation's export revenue, delivered documents to prosecutors that revealed $21.2 billion in commercial accounts receivable in the last three years, of which $3.6 billion are potentially unrecoverable.
Across Venezuela's export terminals, only four PDVSA customers were active this week: Iran's Naftiran Intertrade Company (NICO), U.S.-based Chevron CVX.N, Cuba's state-owned Cubametales and Hangzhou Energy, according to PDVSA schedules.
NICO, Chevron and Cubametales are taking cargoes as compensation for pending debt or oil swaps, which reduces PDVSA's risk of failed payments. Hangzhou Energy's contract is the only one so far ratified after the audit, according to one of the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
PDVSA, Venezuela's oil ministry, Cuba's foreign affairs ministry and a Chevron spokesperson did not immediately reply to requests for comment. Hangzhou Energy could not be reached for comment.
The anti-corruption investigation has focused on determining whether customers with contracts that required prepayments had delivered payments. More recently, officials have expanded the scope of the audit to include price discrepancies, and the performance of PDVSA subsidiaries and joint ventures, company sources said.
A bottleneck of tankers waiting for PDVSA to allocate export cargoes has worsened, according to PDVSA's schedules and vessel monitoring service TankerTrackers.com.
TankerTrackers.com estimated on Thursday there were 23 supertankers, 16 of them near the Jose Terminal, the country's main export terminal, waiting to load Venezuelan crude and fuel for export. That was up from 21 at the end of January.
Contributing to the shipping delays: Privately-owned shipping agencies working for PDVSA and its customers were placed on hold to revise their registration documents, the people said. Only two agencies continued to service companies.
The delays are worrying some customers whose cargoes of crude, fuel and byproducts have not been shipped on time, according to other people familiar with the matter.
On Tuesday, PDVSA head Pedro Tellechea, who also was appointed as oil minister after El Aissami's resignation, named two new top executives at the company: Hector Obregon as executive vice president, and Luis Molina as vice president of exploration and production.
Reporting by Marianna Parraga in Houston, Deisy Buitrago in caracas; Additional reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan in Singapore; Editing by Paul Simao
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