(Adds forecasts, expert comment and context)
By Marianna Parraga
Jan 7 (Reuters) - Venezuela’s oil exports plummeted 32% last year to 1.001 million barrels per day, according to Refinitiv Eikon data and state-run PDVSA’s reports, as a lack of staff and capital drove output to its lowest level in almost 75 years and U.S. sanctions shrank exports markets.
The drop would have been steeper if some of PDVSA’s largest customers had not bought Venezuelan oil through intermediaries or trans-shipped cargoes off several ports around the world so the country of origin was blurred, according to industry sources, vessel trackers and Eikon data.
In terms of customers, Russia’s Rosneft was the largest receiver and intermediary of Venezuelan oil with 33.5% of total exports, followed by state-run China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) and its units with 11%, and Cuba’s state-run Cubametales with 7%, the data showed.
PDVSA did not reply to a request for comment.
China emerged as the first destination for Venezuelan oil in 2019 as sanctions deprived PDVSA of its primary market, the United States. That was despite CNPC and its units halting the loading of crude at Venezuelan ports in the second half.
Venezuela sent an average of 319,507 bpd to China in cargoes covering direct routes as well as in vessels chartered by intermediaries that ended up reaching Chinese refiners after trans-shipping the oil off countries like Malaysia, the Eikon vessel tracking data showed.
U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan and Iranian oil, which along with lower output affected global supply of heavy crude, contributed to driving oil prices up more than 20% last year. But prices are expected to remain rangebound this year as U.S. supplies have swelled.
OPEC-member Venezuela produced 1.01 million bpd of crude from January through November, according to official numbers. The collapse in output under President Nicolas Maduro has dragged what was once Latin America’s wealthiest nation into an economic tailspin.
Analysts monitoring Venezuela forecast a further decline in crude production this year due to the combination of sanctions and lack of investment and staff. Market intelligence firm Kpler expects Venezuela’s production to average 600,000-800,000 bpd in 2020, said its global energy economist, Reid I’Anson.
Analysts said it was hard to predict how sharply exports would fall this year.
“Washington wants more sanctions but PDVSA’s customers are looking for formulas to continue buying,” said Francisco Monaldi, of Rice University’s Baker Institute, who forecasts output will fall this year at least at the same rate as the years preceding sanctions.
“The main questions are how much the United States will enforce sanctions on Venezuela? Is Washington ready to act against PDVSA’s partners and customers?,” Monaldi added.
A frozen trade relationship with the United States allowed Asia in 2019 to strengthen its position as the main destination for PDVSA’s oil with China, India, Malaysia, Japan and Singapore receiving cargoes, sometimes only for blending and transferring.
Venezuela’s oil shipments to Asia averaged 647,000 bpd, or 65% of total exports in 2019.
India was the second-largest receiver of Venezuela oil last year with 217,739 bpd. Refining firm Reliance Industries suspended direct purchases from PDVSA in the second quarter, but resumed them later in 2019 after reaching a new swap deal allowing PDVSA to receive fuel cargoes in exchange.
Europe was the third-largest destination for Venezuelan oil, also through swaps allowed under U.S. sanctions. European refiners, mainly Spain’s Repsol, received an average of 118,980 bpd last year, according to the data.
Cuba was fourth with 70,359 bpd, a number below the average of recent years, but high considering that other Caribbean nations stopped receiving Venezuelan oil even before sanctions hit, due to PDVSA’s declining output.
Former PDVSA executives and union leaders attribute the slump in oil production to a lack of capital and a recent exodus of about 30,000 workers, around a quarter of total staff reported in 2016, the last year the firm published its annual report.
PDVSA and its joint ventures also struggled to export oil that had accumulated in storage tanks amid a shrinking portfolio of customers due to the sanctions announced by Washington a year ago to oust Maduro.
The mounting stocks forced the firm to cut output while converting oil upgraders into blending stations designed for producing the crude grades demanded by Asian clients.
Venezuela, which has the world’s largest crude reserves, imported an average of 155,674 bpd of fuel and diluent naphtha in 2019, in line with recent years but too little to cover the gap left by PDVSA’s very low domestic refining, resulting in intermittent shortages of motor fuel during the year.
Reporting by Marianna Parraga in Mexico City, with additional reporting my Mircely Guanipa in Punto Fijo, Venezuela Editing by Daniel Flynn, David Gregorio and Dan Grebler