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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 April 2019

Venezuala's oil giant PDVSA looks to former employees to come to the rescue

Many professional staff left more than a decade ago for jobs in other countries and reversing plummeting production will require their return

An employee of Venezuelan state owned oil company PDVSA waits as a tanker truck supplies a gas station in Caracas on March 11, 2019. Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido urged lawmakers Monday to declare a "state of alarm" to pave the way for the delivery of international aid as the country's devastating blackout entered its fifth day. / AFP / Cristian HERNANDEZ
An employee of Venezuelan state owned oil company PDVSA waits as a tanker truck supplies a gas station in Caracas on March 11, 2019. Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido urged lawmakers Monday to declare a "state of alarm" to pave the way for the delivery of international aid as the country's devastating blackout entered its fifth day. / AFP / Cristian HERNANDEZ

Now that Juan Guaido has put a shadow board of directors for Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) on standby, he needs a few thousand employees in the wings ready to come to the rescue.

That and a whole lot of money. But assembling a deep bench of experience and knowledge, as Mr Guaido’s team is trying to do, may be the tougher nut to crack. Much of the PDVSA professional staff left more than a decade ago for jobs in other countries. The rank-and-file payroll has thinned out as roughnecks and truck drivers joined the exodus from a country in economic and political crisis.

Reviving the battered state-owned company is a crucial plank in any plan for the future should the National Assembly Leader succeed in his bid, now going on three months, to dislodge the Nicolas Maduro regime. Reversing plummeting production will by most accounts require the return of exiles familiar with the peculiarities of the business in the country with the largest proven reserves in the world.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” said Luis Salas, who was a drilling manager on PDVSA rigs for 13 years. “Promises and reality are two different things.”

The diaspora is global, with former executives and technicians in new careers across Latin America and in the US and Canada. Some landed in the Arabian Gulf, where countries are recruiting the hold-out talent still in Caracas.

“Everyday, you see new Venezuelans coming to Saudi Arabia,” said Alejandro Ramirez, who was a financial analyst at PDVSA and is now a financial consultant for Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, in Dhahran.

Despite the obvious lures - like the idyllic weather in Caracas or the chance to once again enjoy the arepas, a type of maize bread and cachapas, a sweet corn pancake, they grew up on - many refugees would be hard pressed to return. “I’ve been living abroad for 20 years,” \Mr Ramirez said. His two daughters were born in the US and raised in the kingdom. “I don’t know if I’d go back.”

The search for candidates to staff a new PDVSA has been going on, in fits and starts, for 15 years. It began after the mass-firing in 2003 of 18,000 employees who joined a strike to demand early elections to challenge then-President Hugo Chavez. Gente del Petroleo, which keeps a database of former employees, was established the next year.

The search kicks up every time the opposition seems to be making headway. The effort is “gaining steam now” thanks to Mr Guaido, said Juan Fernandez, a planning and risk director at PDVSA until 2003 who lives in Miami.

There are no reliable data on the numbers of one-time employees who are still in the business. Gente del Petroleo has reached out to several thousand, Mr Fernandez said, sending surveys to ask questions about current positions and gauge interest in helping rebuild PDVSA. “We have been collecting data on people outside Venezuela and speaking to Guaido’s team on how to best channel the human resources,” he said.

The potential workforce includes new expatriates like Mr Salas, who quit last year and moved with his wife and three children to Bogota, where he works odd jobs. PDVSA was a “disaster”, he said. “I saw what a mess the meetings were, the total lack of attention to detail, no one taking charge of anything.”

As rocky as his situation is in Colombia, he said, he wouldn’t go back unless he was persuaded the company really could be made whole again.

With enough investment - many tens of billions of dollars - and expertise, that could happen. “The loss of technically competent people is one of the most limiting factors,” said Luis Giusti, who resigned as PDVSA’s chief executive the day before Mr Chavez took office in 1999 and is an adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

PDVSA had been a crown jewel, considered one of the most efficiently run state oil companies. But negligence, botched management and graft hollowed it out to such an extent that it’s now pumping around 1 million barrels a day, down from more than 3 million when Mr Chavez became president.

“There is a lot of potential,” said Nestor Zerpa, a senior adviser at CNOOC in Calgary, Canada. But “it was so easy to destroy, and so difficult to build”.

If Mr Maduro exits, Mr Zerpa said he’d consider helping a new government remake PDVSA, at least on a temporary basis. He was pushed out of his refinery management job there after he joined the anti-Chavez walkout. It wasn’t easy, he acknowledged, to start over in a place where the temperatures often drop below freezing, a far cry from Caracas.

“That took some adjustment,” he said. But in Canada, “you have your freedom, you have security, you have a good life.”

While groups affiliated with the opposition have been drawing up plans to remake the company, there’s no telling how the resuscitation would play out in a post-Maduro world.

The US presumably would lift its sanctions. Mr Guaido’s picks for new boards for PDVSA and its US refining arm, Citgo, include industry veterans whose credibility could help attract the needed investment. Foreign companies are, not surprisingly, eager to assist.

“We have a lot of people who are very well qualified and are available to go,” Ashok Belani, executive vice president of technology at Schlumberger, said at a conference in Houston last week. “There is a lot of willingness to do that, if the conditions were right.”

Even with money and solid staffing, though, the full recovery effort would take years. “We can’t talk about a quick fix,” said Luisa Garcia, a 17-year PDVSA trade and planning manager veteran who left in 2014 and now works in Miami as a marketing consultant. “It’s not going to be easy, but the last 20 years haven’t been easy either.”

In another attempt to shore up the country's oil finances, Mr Guaido plans to appeal a $8.75 billion award issued to ConocoPhillips by the World Bank’s arbitration tribunal this month, arguing the amount was overestimated.

Jose Ignacio Hernandez, newly appointed as attorney general for Mr Guaido’s growing parallel government, said there are "severe miscalculation errors" in the award, which resulted from the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes’ (ICSID) decision to uphold Conoco’s claim that Venezuela unlawfully confiscated in 2007 its Hamaca and Petrozuata heavy crude oil projects in the Orinoco River basin.

The appeal would another step in the efforts by Mr Guaido, who’s been recognised by some fifty nations including the US as the rightful president of Venezuela, to assert control over the country’s finances, cutting out Mr Maduro’s regime.

Both sides have 120 days from the ruling date to appeal the decision, Mr Hernandez said.

“It’s too early for us to speculate on when we might recover from Venezuela,” said Daren Beaudo, a spokesman for Conoco. “The company will pursue all legal avenues to obtain full recovery of the award.” The ICSID declined to comment.

Conoco was also awarded $2bn last year by the International Chamber of Commerce over the seizure of assets. Following that decision, the company moved aggressively to take over PDVSA facilities in the Caribbean islands of Bonaire, Curacao, St Eustatius and Aruba. Vessels carrying Venezuelan crude were ordered to pull away from Caribbean ports, creating a backlog of ships and hindering the nation’s oil exports.

Mr Chavez ordered the seizure between 2007 and 2009 of about $30bn of majority stakes in a number of energy projects, including four oil operations in the Orinoco River basin. The government said at the time the projects had a strategic role in the country’s development and sovereignty.

Updated: March 17, 2019 11:31 AM

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