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US may be prepping Venezuela oil sector sanctions: analysts

Washington — The US is preparing actions to pressure the Maduro regime in Venezuela, which analysts said Sunday could include some oil sector sanctions.

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The actions will not include restrictions on US imports of Venezuelan crude oil, but could include new prohibitions on US light oil exports and refined product exports to Venezuela, analysts said.

In an interview with Fox News on Friday, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo indicated that the Trump administration was developing some retaliatory measures against the Maduro regime.

"I think you'll see in the coming days, a series of actions that continue to increase the pressure level against the Venezuelan leadership - folks who are working directly against the best interests of the Venezuelan people," Pompeo said in an interview with Fox News on Friday.

Pompeo did not offer further details on these actions and on Sunday, a State Department spokesman declined to comment on whether oil-sector sanctions were still being considered by the administration.

"We don't forecast sanctions," the official said.

Francisco Monaldi, the Latin American energy policy fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, told S&P Global Platts that the administration could be considering new sanctions on individuals or a ban on exporting light oil and refined products to Venezuela.

"Those have been always on the table," he said.

The US sent 134,000 b/d of refined petroleum products to Venezuela in June, up from last year's average of 67,000 b/d. Through June of this year, the US has also sent an average of 40,000 b/d of refined products to Curacao where Venezuela's state-run oil company PDVSA had run a refinery.

Monaldi said the Trump administration may also be considering a tightening of financial sanctions, such as new insurance limitations or additional credit restrictions.

A ban on US imports of Venezuelan crude, however, is not being considered, he said.

"I think they are unlikely to be an import ban or adding PDVSA to the sanctioned, which would be very harsh, but would affect US businesses and the oil market," Monaldi said.

Joe McMonigle, an analyst with Hedgeye Risk Management, said the administration is not considering sanctions on Venezuelan oil due to the impact on domestic gasoline prices.

"The White House is already spooked by high oil prices, especially after the Iran sanctions, so I highly doubt Trump would want to add more pressure on oil markets ahead of the election," McMonigle said.

Still, he said a prohibition on US diluent exports to Venezuela is being considered.

McMonigle said he expects the US to increase pressure on Venezuela during this week's UN General Assembly and, potentially, get the UN more involved in future sanctions action.

"So far, the UN has rebuffed US efforts but Trump himself will be pushing it next week," he said.

The US has sanctioned individuals in Venezuela, including President Nicolas Maduro; prohibited the purchase and sale of any Venezuelan government debt, including any bonds issued by PDVSA; and banned the use of the Venezuela-issued digital currency known as the petro. But oil sector sanctions are viewed as the most powerful penalty remaining and one the Trump administration has been very hesitant to use.

US imports of Venezuelan crude, which averaged 851,000 b/d in July 2016, fell to 409,000 in February 2018, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Venezuelan imports have since recovered somewhat, climbing to 552,000 b/d in June, according to EIA's latest data.

According to the latest Platts survey, Venezuela produced 1.22 million b/d of crude oil in August, down 680,000 b/d year on year. EIA expects Venezuelan production to fall below 1 million b/d by the end of the year.

In Algiers Sunday, Venezuelan oil minister Manuel Quevedo said Venezuela's current production is 1.5 million b/d and the country wants to increase output by at least 1 million b/d in one year.

"We went to China last week, we got some $5 billion dollars just to invest in production," Quevedo said. "We have a plan in detail and we have the capacity."

Quevedo said at least 1 million b/d will sent to China.

--Brian Scheid, brian.scheid@spglobal.com

--Eklavya Gupte, eklavy.gupte@spglobal.com

--Edited by Liz Thang, elizabeth.thang@spglobal.com