Igor Sechin has come to Venezuela a lot. While our airplane was taking off, I was wondering how much available time can a top executive has –an executive like Sechin, the most powerful man in the huge Russian petroleum industry- to visit a country like Venezuela three, four, five times a year.
He said later that the Orinoco Belt is “one of the most interesting projects in the world”. That might be an answer. But it is also true that Russia is under heavy pressure because their Venezuelan project will be the first to be developed outside its own territory, a land with plenty of crude and, especially, natural gas. So, it has to be worth it.
Sechin kept quiet while Rafael Ramirez, Venezuelan petroleum minister, got out of his fancy, silver car and walked right to a pump with a big crystal jar in his hands. Both of them ducked, waiting for a worker to open the valve, where a thick, deep black oil began to emerge. “One for your president and one for mine”, Ramirez said satisfied.
A swirl of journalist and photographers approached with their recorders and TV cameras both men while the flashes made their eyes shine.
Chavez gave two of the biggest block of the Orinoco Belt to a Russian consortium, with a joint capacity to produce some 850,000 barrels per day, without holding any auction. At the same time, almost 40 foreign companies competed in a formal auction to gain another two areas in the same field, the biggest extra heavy oil reserve in the world. Companies had to get involved in an international auction that awarded Chavez’s government millions of dollars in entry bonuses.
Ramirez spoke for half an hour with the mastery of a TV host. Sechin waited for his turn. Once the journalists were tired of asking Ramirez about the project, which is being inaugurated a few weeks after two refinery explosions shook the South American country, leaving deaths, injuries and damages.
“We want a long relationship with Venezuela”, he said, looking directly to the eyes of the journalist who asked him, after receiving good news about a new area that the Venezuelan government is delivering in the Orinoco Belt directly to Rosneft, the Russian petroleum company headed by Sechin and full of fresh money to invest all over the world.
Russian companies including giant Rosneft, Lukoil and Gazprom, the smaller Surgutneftegaz and TNK-BP, the firm that saved British BP from bankruptcy after the oil spill, already invested 800 million dollars in the last year and they are forecasting an additional investment of 5 billion dollars by 2016, the date when two big crude upgraders have to be built to convert extra heavy Orinoco crudes into lighter and exportable crudes.
The two projects involving Russian companies are supposed to invest a total amount of almost 38 billion dollars –half PDVSA’s money and half Russians- to reach their maximum output capacity.
Sechin’s final words, smiling and speaking in perfect Spanish, were dedicated to President Hugo Chavez, a close ally of the controversial Russian government: “Mister President, we are ready to justify your confidence in us. Trust in us and give us the hardest and most complicated tasks and we will accomplish them”.
He did not send any electoral message, but under an olive-green military jacket, he was wearing a white tee shirt with a photograph of Chavez punching the air in a symbol of triumph.