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Quevedo may take blame for faltering oil sector

Analysts say turning around PDVSA a tall order

President Maduro set to be inaugurated Jan. 10

London — Venezuela's crumbling oil industry looks set for more political turmoil.

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Oil minister and PDVSA CEO Manuel Quevedo may be on the outs, as President Nicolas Maduro is preparing a cabinet shuffle that could put a new ally in charge of the country's lifeblood industry, sources close to the situation told S&P Global Platts.

Quevedo, a former brigadier general in the National Guard with no previous experience in oil, has overseen widespread fuel shortages and a continued deterioration of Venezuela's crude production to six-decade lows in his 13 months in charge of the ministry and PDVSA.

With Maduro facing mounting pressure from international creditors and sliding oil prices further imperiling Venezuela's already crippled economy, Quevedo could be scapegoated and sacked when the president is inaugurated for his second six-year term January 10, the sources said.

But any successor is unlikely to do much better -- if at all -- given the entrenched corruption and mismanagement within state oil company PDVSA, not to mention its crushing debt, decaying infrastructure and shortage of technical experts, many of whom have left or been purged.

Some 98% of the country's export revenues come from oil.

"Venezuela was barely surviving at $80/b, and we can cross it out at $50/b," said Olivier Jakob, an analyst with consultancy PetroMatrix.

Venezuela, which sits on the world's largest proven oil reserves, pumped 1.17 million b/d in November, according to the latest S&P Global Platts OPEC survey, down 630,000 b/d year on year and 900,000 b/d in two years.

Few of the rumored candidates bring any industry expertise, making a turnaround unlikely, barring a significant sell-off or farm-out of oil assets to outside companies.

Close Maduro ally Jorge Rodriguez, the minister for communication and information and the brother of current Vice President Delcy Rodriguez, is a leading candidate to replace Quevedo.

But powerful lawmaker Diosdado Cabello, who chairs the Maduro-stacked Constituent Assembly, is said to favor Guillermo Blanco Acosta, PDVSA's vice president of refining, sources said on condition of anonymity.

Politician Jose Vielma Mora and former Central Bank President Nelson Merentes have also been mentioned as possible successors, according to the sources.

The oil ministry did not respond to a request for comment, and neither did a Maduro spokesperson.

LIMPING ALONG

PDVSA's plummeting production has left it with little crude to export for profit, once barrels sent to creditors in Russia and China are subtracted.

Its decrepit oil refineries, suffering from years of underinvestment, are barely able to function, forcing the country to import fuel and draining its foreign reserves.

The US, which has accused the Maduro regime of human rights violations, has already sanctioned PDVSA, severely restricting its access to new debt financing, and is threatening further measures.

The recent slump in prices, with NYMEX crude futures falling some $30/b since early October, has exacerbated the situation.

"Almost all the crude produced is exchanged for gasoline, diesel, VGO, and the remainder is paid to the Chinese and the Russians," one of the sources said. "That is, the oil income is a euphemism. And now with the price coming down, the situation looks even more complicated."

Maduro has traveled in recent weeks to China and Russia to shore up support ahead of his inauguration, but sources said he instead heard calls to remove Quevedo to fix the ailing oil sector.

A cabinet shuffle could also be a precursor to a move to dissolve PDVSA and replace it with a new energy company that presumably would be freed from PDVSA's debt obligations.

The Constituent Assembly has been studying the plan, which could be unveiled after Maduro's inauguration, according to reports.

MILITARY, OPEC TIES

Quevedo's possible saving grace is his ties to the Venezuelan military, a key constituency that Maduro has courted to ward off a potential coup, sources said.

Quevedo is also about to assume the rotating OPEC presidency for 2019, giving him a high profile post. The presidency, which involves chairing meetings, calling for emergency sessions, and serving as the organization's ministerial spokesman, rotates alphabetically among the member countries on an annual basis.

OPEC, Russia and nine other allies agreed earlier this month on a 1.2 million b/d production cut deal for the first six months of 2019, and Quevedo, who has served on a key monitoring committee alongside the Russian and Saudi energy ministers, won an exemption for Venezuela from the cuts.

The country's output was expected to decline further anyway, with some analysts estimating it could fall below 1 million b/d in weeks.

Scott Modell, an analyst with consultancy Rapidan Energy, said one potential face-saving move for Maduro would be to keep Quevedo on as oil minister so he can remain the country's public face at OPEC, while shifting the PDVSA CEO duties to someone else. But either way, Quevedo appears on shaky ground.

"Just about everyone wants Quevedo out, including Russia," Modell said. "[A] cabinet reshuffle seems likely in January."

For Venezuela's beleaguered and once-booming oil sector, more turbulence is a certainty.

--Herman Wang, herman.wang@spglobal.com

--Mery Mogollon, newsdesk@spglobal.com

--Edited by Daniel Lalor, newsdesk@spglobal.com