Venezuela’s broken oil industry is spewing crude into the Caribbean Sea

Maxar Technologies

The FSO Nabarima, laden with 1.3 million barrels of oil, is taking on water in the Gulf of Paria between Venezuela and Trinidad, as seen in this Sept. 16 satellite image.

CARACAS, Venezuela — The sun had risen over the Caribbean Sea when Frank González spotted “the stain” — an oil slick on the water that stretched for miles.

“The sea looked like butter, because of the thickness of the water,” said González, a fisherman who saw the spill this month while working off the coast of Venezuela’s Falcón state. “It was painful to see.”

Venezuela’s once powerful oil industry is literally falling apart, with years of mismanagement, corruption, falling prices and a U.S. embargo imposed last year bringing aging infrastructure to the brink of collapse. As the government scrambles to repair and restart its fuel-processing capacity, analysts are warning that ruptured pipelines, rusting tankers and rickety refineries are contributing to a mounting ecological disaster in this failing socialist state.

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Oil workers say the gushing crude soiling the coast of Falcón state this month came from a cracked underwater pipeline linked to attempts to restart fuel production at the aging Cardón refinery. Not far from the oil slick, fisherman say, is a jetting geyser of natural gas from a second broken pipeline.

“The gas leak looks like a boiling pot about to explode,” González said.

The leaks are the latest in a spate of oil industry troubles that have alarmed environmentalists here. They include a recent oil spill that has jeopardized corals and rare marine life off sensitive Morrocoy National Park, and a rusting vessel in the Gulf of Paria that observers call a ticking ecological time bomb. Analysts see a growing risk of more and larger spills in a country that has already suffered years of damage from broken wells and abandoned oil fields.

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“Our fear is that as they try to fix and restart these refineries and oil centers, we’re only going to see more of this,” said Cristina Burelli, international liaison for SOSOrinoco, a nonprofit focused on environmental damage in Venezuela. “More underground oil pipelines are blowing up. The whole system is corroded and falling apart.”

A rash of gold mining — much of it illegal — has contributed to a surge of pollutants in the Venezuelan interior, endangering the important ecosystem at Canaima National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. And illicit logging has jeopardized rainforest. But in this OPEC nation that sits on world’s largest proven oil reserves, the biggest driver of environmental damage is the crumbling energy sector.

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Particularly in recent years, a lack of spare parts, a brain drain of technicians and widespread corruption have crippled oil production and fuel refineries, making environmental accidents more common. Between 2010 and 2016, the state oil giant PDVSA was responsible for more than 46,000 spills of crude and other pollutants, according to the Caracas-based human rights group Provea.

Michael Robinson Chavez

The Washington Post

Fishermen Omar González, left, and Raúl Silva, center, dock their fishing boat on the oil-covered shores of Lake Maracaibo in May 2019.

In the Connecticut-sized Lake Maracaibo, thousands of wells now stand broken and useless, with raw crude and natural gas bubbling visibly to the surface. In 2016, the last year data was available, state engineers estimated that tens of thousands of gallons of oil were seeping into the lake each month.

The U.S. embargo on Venezuelan oil has deepened the industry’s woes. The country lacks the capacity to process much of its sludgy product. When it sent crude to the United States, it got back refined gasoline. The end of that system has worsened severe fuel shortages. The need to store extra crude that Venezuela cannot sell under the embargo, as well as the government’s attempts to revamp and restart old refineries to increase domestic fuel production, appear to be driving the recent spills, analysts and oil workers say.

The country’s diplomatic isolation has exacerbated the problem. The United States and more than 50 other countries consider President Nicolás Maduro a usurper; they recognize National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as the country’s rightful leader.

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Unlike Mauritius, which recently called for international aid after a Japanese tanker spilled more than 1,000 tons of oil off its pristine coast, the Venezuelan government has few friends to turn to — and so has largely downplayed the spills.

“It breaks my heart,” said Julia Alvarez, a marine biologist here. “This is an ecological crime.”

Analysts began monitoring the first of the recent spills in August.

Eduardo Klein, director of the Remote Sensors Laboratory in the department of environmental studies at Simón Bolívar University, used satellite images to document a massive oil slick washing up on the beaches of Morrocoy National Park, a sensitive ecosystem of corals, sponges and sea turtles on the Caribbean coast. The images, he said, suggested the spill originated at refinery in Carabobo state.

“It can be seen without a doubt that there is a very large stain in front of El Palito refinery,” he said. “There is no way this stain had any other origin.”

Klein estimated the spill at 26,000 barrels of oil over 135 square miles, the largest in the area in at least 20 years.

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According to local news reports, El Palito refinery suffered a failure at the end of July, when workers tried to reactivate it in an effort to refine fuel. Ivan Feites, an oil union board member, said the facility’s compressor pumps, turbines and pipes remain severely damaged.

“That’s what causes spills every time they try to restart the refinery,” Feites said. “The refinery doesn’t work and can’t produce fuel. It’s like a piece of cardboard that easily breaks.”

Meridith Kohut

Bloomberg News

The sun sets over El Palito oil refinery in Puerto Cabello.

The Venezuelan government has not acknowledged the origin of the spill, but said in a statement last month that Morrocoy’s animal and plant life had not been damaged. The National Assembly has opened an investigation; opposition officials have suggested that the refinery’s waste pit might have overflowed due to heavy rains and a lack of maintenance.

The Venezuelan government did not respond to a request for comment.

On the other side of the country, analysts and oil workers are growing increasingly concerned about the FSO Nabarima, a rusting vessel laden with 1.3 million barrels of crude that is taking on water in the Gulf of Paria. They fear the floating storage and offloading unit is at risk of sinking and creating a major environmental disaster in the Caribbean Sea.

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Eudis Girot, head of the anti-government Unitary Federation of Petroleum Workers of Venezuela, posted photos on social media showing what he described as the ship’s already flooded engine room. In a video posted to social media, he begged Maduro to intervene.

“Take a helicopter,” he said. “Go out there. Do your own inspection.”

PDVSA confirmed the most recent oil spill, near its Cardón refinery. The oil giant said this month that the leak occurred in an underwater pipeline and cleanup was underway.

González, who grew up fishing with his uncle on the coast of Falcón, said he and other fisherman worry the spill will ruin their livelihoods. Environmentalists, meanwhile, say it could affect populations of dolphins, crocodiles, seabirds and green turtles.

“We have never seen a spill like this,” said González. “For years, no one has come to do maintenance on the refineries. Now it turns out that they are polluting everything with oil, and nobody seems to care.”

Faiola reported from Miami.

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