Fuel shortage again hits oil-rich Venezuela amid refinery woes, protests

Gas station workers inspect the level of the gasoline tanks of a gas station of the state oil company PDVSA in Caracas, Venezuela on March 22, 2017.
Gas station workers inspect the level of the gasoline tanks of a gas station of the state oil company PDVSA in Caracas, Venezuela on March 22, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

CIUDAD GUAYANA, Venezuela/CARACAS (REUTERS) - Pockets of oil-rich Venezuela were suffering gasoline shortages on Wednesday (May 17) as the Opec nation's ageing refineries faced more operational problems and protests blocked some deliveries.

Venezuela, which has the world's cheapest gasoline, has been plagued by intermittent fuel shortages in recent months as its oil industry struggles with lower production.

Lines were reported in the southeastern Anzoategui and Bolivar states as well as the opposition hotbed of Tachira near Colombia, where anti-government protests have flared in recent days. Caracas, the capital, did not appear affected.

The president of state-run oil company PDVSA, Eulogio Del Pino, blamed the holdups on nearly two months of protests in Venezuela, home to the world's biggest crude reserves.

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Demonstrators have blocked streets with barricades, nighttime lootings have spread, and some tanker trucks have been attacked.

"We've said that when there are risky situations, or disruptions of public order, drivers are kept off the roads because these irrational (protesters) do not take risks into account," Del Pino told journalists.

The company did not immediately respond to a request for further details.

Three of Venezuela's four refineries are working at record lows due to equipment malfunctioning, as well as lack of crude and spare parts, according to internal PDVSA reports seen by Reuters.

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The waits at gasoline stations heap extra hardship on the nation of 30 million, where many already jostle for hours in hot lines for food due to a brutal economic crisis under leftist President Nicolas Maduro.

On Wednesday in Tachira state, many roads were blocked and stores had shut down amid the unrest.

At least 10 out of 36 gasoline stations in Bolivar's main city, Ciudad Guayana, were also closed, according to Pedro Calcano, president of the local gasoline stations association, who said he was not given an explanation for the delays.

Bolivar has experienced significant supply disruptions even though protests there have been smaller and less violent than in other places.

"This problem won't end until production at the refineries improves," said the manager of one service station.

Compounding the problem at the refineries, the gasoline-producing catalytic cracking unit at the 310,000 barrel-per-day Cardon refinery was halted over the weekend, sources said.

PDVSA since March has tried to solve the fuel shortages by increasing imports, but payment delays have impeded tankers from discharging on time.

As of Wednesday, almost 20 tankers were waiting to discharge imported products at ports, according to Thomson Reuters vessel tracking data.