Bolivarian Venezuela in crisis: An oil-rich nation collapses? Berlin, 10 October


Bolivarian Venezuela in crisis: An oil-rich nation collapses? – Panel Discussion (bios follow):

  • Ms. Rita Bitar Deeb  PhD student in Political Science at the Otto-Suhr-Institut of Freie Universität Berlin
  • Dr. Ivo Hernandez  Lecturer in International Relations at the Political Science Institute of Universität Münster
  • Dr. Manuel Silva-Ferrer  John Boulton Foundation Fellow and Lecturer at the Latin-American Institute of Freie Universität Berlin
  • Dr. Thomas W. O’Donnell -Moderator  Guest Lecturer at Hertie School of Governance and the European Studies Program, FU/BEST at Freie Universität Berlin

WHEN: 10 October, 6-7:30 pm. LOCATION:  Hertie School of Governance,  Friedrichstrasse 180 – 10117 Berlin, Germany.  [To attend, please register online.] – Venezuela is currently unable to adequately feed its people, or to provide basic services such as medical care, education, and electricity. Polls indicate about 90% of the population would vote to remove its Chavista president, Nicolas Maduro, if his government allowed a recall referenda to take place this year, which is widely demanded. What will happen in Venezuela: Collapse? Chaos? Democratic renewal?  And, moreover, why is this occurring now?

Since the mid-20th Century, fueled by oil riches, Venezuela has veered from being the leading example of ‘democratic development’ within a continent rife with right-wing dictatorships, to a nation mired in its own economic and political crises. A ‘neo-liberal shock’ in the late-1980’s failed and was roundly rejected by citizens. At the end of the 1990‘s, Hugo Chavez broadly excited the hopes for development of not only Venezuelans but elicited significant sympathy worldwide with Chavismo’s ‘new resource nationalism’ and ’21st Century Bolivarian Socialism’. However, this leftward turn is also demonstrably failing, with the nation again on the brink of disaster. What comes next? Our panel of Venezuelan experts weighs in and will address attendees’ questions.

Rita Bitar Deeb is a PhD student in Political Science at the Otto-Suhr-Institut of the Freie Universität Berlin. She received her Master in Public Policy and Management from the University of Pittsburgh and Graduate Certificate in Latin American Studies. Her research interests are democratization process, social development and gender policy. She has worked for the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), and several local NGOs as project coordinator in Venezuela (Atenea, Súmate, Red de Apoyo-HHRR). Bitar has taught at the University of Kassel in Germany, and at the Catholic University in Caracas.

Ivo Hernandez is lecturer in International Relations at the Political Science Institute of Universität Münster.  He studied at Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) in Caracas, the London School of Economics (LSE), the University of Heidelberg and University of Tübingen in Germany and The National Defense University in Washington D.C. His research interests include oil politics, national oil companies, the logics of terrorism, and Latin American politics and political economy.

Manuel Silva-Ferrer is John Boulton Foundation Fellow – exploring oil, society and culture in 20th-Century Latin America – as well as Lecturer at the Latin-American Institute of Freie Universität Berlin.  Born in Caracas, he is a graduate of the Institute of Communication Studies at Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) and earned his PhD from Freie Universität Berlin.  He was Director of the state film foundation Cinemateca Nacional de Venezuela and Head of Cinema and Media at the Ministry of Culture where his work included developing the National Academy of Film and Audiovisual.  Silva-Ferrer led ExtraCámara, a magazine for Latin-American photography, and was co-responsible for the creation of the Centro Nacional de la Fotografía, a public foundation for the promotion of photographic art. During his studies, Silva-Ferrer was Fellow of the Fundación Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho, and awarded a PhD full scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

Moderation & comments:

Thomas W. O’Donnell is Guest Lecturer at Hertie School of Governance and the European Studies Program (FU/BEST) at Freie Universität Berlin.  An academic, analyst and consultant in the global energy system and international relations, his work has encompassed especially the role of oil and gas in the EU, Russia, Latin America, Middle East, China and the USA.  His PhD is from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in experimental nuclear physics, and he previously studied Political Science and China Studies at the State University of New York and Canisius College.  In 2008-09, he was US Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Professor at the Center for the Study of Development (CENDES) at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) and in 2015 AICGS (American Institute of Contemporary German Studies) & DAAD Fellow in Washington D.C. O’Donnell has taught post-graduate seminars on energy in international relations and development at The University of Michigan, The Ohio State University, The New School University’s JJ Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs (NYC),and Freie Universität, JFK Institute (Berlin). He is Senior Analyst at Wikistrat and consults with other geopolitical and business-intelligence firms. Before his PhD, O’Donnell gained broad tech experience in U.S. automobile-manufacturing, railway-operations and power-generation industries.  He is author of some 40 peer-reviewed scientific physics papers.

If you wish to attend, please register online.

Pipe Dream? Polish ruling complicates Nord Stream 2 pipeline for Gazprom & EU partners [My Berlin Policy Journal piece]

bpj_online_odonnell_nordstream2_cutHere’s my latest analysis in Berlin Policy Journal (German Council on Foreign Relations -DGAP).Pipe Dream? The Nord Stream 2 pipeline project is in danger of being derailed.

A pipeline project to double Gazprom’s export capacity to Europe has always been controversial. A recent ruling by Poland’s competition authority could seriously undercut the support it has accrued, leaving its European backers at odds.

The proposed Nord Stream 2 pipeline project has bitterly pitted European states that back the project, including Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and France, against project opponents, including Ukraine, Poland, and other former Soviet-bloc states. The project aims to double the capacity of the existing huge, 55-billion-cubic-meter-per-year Nord Stream 1 pipeline, running in parallel to it under the Baltic Sea from near St. Petersburg in Russia directly to Greifswald in Germany.

This dispute has exposed two very different views of Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas-export monopoly, and of Vladimir Putin’s Russia itself – one side sees it as a “necessary” and “reliable” energy supplier, the other a dangerous and manipulative adversary. This dispute is but one more collision inflicting lasting harm on the European Project.

Polish competition authority rejects project

The latest row involves a ruling in late July by the Polish Office of Competition and Consumer Protection (Urzed Ochrony Konkurencji i Konsumentow, or UOKiK) rejecting an application by five private western European energy firms proposing to partner with Gazprom to build and operate Nord Stream 2. The firms are Germany’s E.ON (soon to be Uniper) and Wintershall, Austria’s OMV, Anglo-Dutch Shell, and France’s Engie.

Shortly before the Polish announcement, the five companies agreed to withdraw their association proposal to avoid UOKiK initiating a legal process against them. The commission’s president, Marek Niechcial, declared categorically on August 12 that the Polish rejection was definitive, asserting “This will stop the [Nord Stream 2] deal.” The five firms have nevertheless made it clear they are seeking a strategy to work around the decision, and expect to proceed as planned. Gazprom has said the same.

So why go through this proceeding in the first place? To understand these events better, I spoke with several experts and diplomats working on these matters in Moscow, Berlin, Washington, Paris, and Warsaw.

Commercial Arguments

An often-heard line of argument is that at least some of the five companies might actually have little commercial interest in the project, but need to preserve their relationships in Russia where they have large investments in energy projects. After all, the Kremlin has a track record of taking over projects from foreign partners with whom it has fallen out. A further theme in this vein is that Nord Stream 2 is not really needed in northwestern Europe, even though the Groningen field in the Netherlands and Norway’s reserves in the North Sea are declining, because future demand in northwestern Europe is overestimated and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) will be available from the United States. This view led to press speculation that the five firms likely welcomed the Polish decision, allowing them a graceful exit.

However, virtually all the experts I spoke with had no doubt Nord Stream 2 would be a lucrative commercial enterprise over the long run, and that the five firms seem genuinely enthusiastic. Continue reading

“Energy independence” won’t free the USA from global oil market & geopolitics [I’m cited: CNNMoney]


Credit: CNNMoney, 9 August 2016

Mr. Trump promises he’d use the USA’s shale-oil revolution to deliver “complete” independence from foreign oil, telling voters in May: “Imagine a world in which our foes and the oil cartels (sic) can no longer use energy as a weapon. Wouldn’t that be nice?” But, he is confusing two quite distinct things:

“Energy independence” – in the sense of the USA producing more oil than the country consumes – is indeed possible, even “tantalizingly close” as this CNNMoney article (Aug. 9, 2016, by Matt Egan) makes clear, citing myself and other experts.  For clarity, I’ll call this “net oil-exporter status.”

However, Donald Trump asks us to “imagine” he can use this net oil exporter status, to make the US independent of the global oil market and oil in geopolitics where our “foes” and “cartels” have leverage. Continue reading

How fast can Libyan oil recover? (I’m quoted by CNN)


CNN 20 July 2016

The oil market remains glutted, with price in the mid-$40’s.  Despite furtive hopes over recent weeks  by the business press about “imminent re-balancing” of global supply v. demand and about “draw downs” of record-high global storage inventories, data reveal only incremental re-balancing has occurred since fall of 2014 when this all began. (And, from November 2014,  the Saudi’s responded by fighting for their market-share rather than for boosting price, which would have been impossible for OPEC to do on its own given the huge supply glut.)

Continue reading

New US tech squeezing oilfields & rivals [IBD quotes me]

U.S. oil companies are developing new technologies and techniques to produce oil cheaper and faster.Gillian Rich at Investors’ Business Daily News (17 June 2016) writes a quite informative survey of the many new technological methods pushing the cost of US shale production ever downward. Here’s Gillian’s article. She asked me about the impact on OPEC producers and my central point (my quotes are below) was that it will be the high-tech, most-efficient producers (such as US shale) and NOT necessarily those with the largest and easiest-to-access proven reserves (e.g., countries such as Venezuela and much of OPEC, many corrupt Russian and Chinese state-dominated firms, etc.)  that will set the pace in the new oil order

If the latter actors can’t find ways to innovate in technology and operational methods they will be at a disadvantage because shale production looks more like manufacturing than  traditional oil extraction.  Many OPEC and other state-owned firms never had to think like a combination of Henry Ford and Silicon Valley, but could instead count on huge, low-cost reserves, inefficient exploration and production and cheap local labor.

Eventually, the new shale methods will of course spread to promising shale fields in Argentina, China, Eastern/Central Europe and elsewhere; but this will require big advances in local infrastructure, training and government regulatory capacity. Again, things those countries must think about very seriously. Here are my quotes (from near the end of her long article).

New Oil Order

…. OPEC countries like Nigeria and Venezuela that haven’t invested in newer technology will be hurt by advances in the U.S., said Thomas O’Donnell, a senior energy analyst at the consulting firm Wikistrat. Russia also can’t exploit shale and Arctic assets because of economic sanctions that limit Westerners from helping develop the new fields.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has low-cost production fields, and state-run oil company Saudi Aramco can bring in foreign experts knowledgeable about fracking and new technologies, he added.

Still, OPEC must now grapple with U.S. shale producers on the rebound, which could lead to volatility, O’Donnell said. “The oil order has changed. It’s conventional oil on one side, and new shale oil on the other.”

What’s keeping foreign oil firms out of Iran? IRG? [CNNMoney quotes me]


To put Iran’s recent production increases in perspective: On its own, for 37 years, Iran has struggled to produce two-thirds of its pre-revolutionary level of 6 million barrels/day. Now, domestic opposition is again limiting foreign oil companies’ participation to boost production.

Since the Obama-administration’s and Europe’s nuclear sanctions were lifted early this year (marked ‘e’ on the chart), Iran has been expanding its production and exports more rapidly than most experts had expected. Tehran has actually tripled exports since late-2015 (see point ‘f’).  But, here’s the big question: Can Iran sustain this years’ production gains?
If to, this could seriously undermine Saudi Arabia’s global oil-market share, and boost Iran’s sanctions-damaged economy to a long-awaited recovery.
The short answer: Now that foreign sanctions are finally lifted, the battle to boost Iran’s oil exports has shifted to a domestic clash over whether to allow foreign oil companies to have significant upstream involvement. This is a domestic Iranian issue with a long history.
Historical perspective
Let’s start with some historical perspective: The Iranian National Oil Company (NIOC) can only do so much on its own to boost production. After decades of sanctions, it lacks the needed technology and finance.  I told CNNMoney‘s Matt Egan, on Wednesday, that the faster Iran expands on its own, the faster production will plateau. (His CNNMoney article today quotes me .).
This was what happened after the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.(‘b’ on the chart). By about 1992, production had plateaued at almost 4 million barrels/day, under 2/3 of the pre-revolutionary, late-1970’s level of roughly 6 million barrels per day. (‘a’ on chart).  The Iranian president at the time, Rafsanjani, argued to religious conservative and nationalist members of the Majilis that only foreign oil companies’ technology and investments could expand production further. However, he only won grudging approval for an offshore project due to fears that foreigners would bring their irreligious ways ashore and/or undermine the hard-won nationalization of Iran’s oil sector.
Continue reading

Analysts don't expect OPEC to take any action Thursday, but sources told Reuters an output ceiling would be discussed. (©Aania-Fotolia/

Last night Investor’s Business Daily NEWS’ Gillin Rich interviewed me. The title reflects some rumors, but my point of view, as she reports, emphasizes market realities that bode against any output limit – esp. if the Iranians are still intransigent … and they certainly seem to be so.  I pointed out that US shale would be hesitant to respond until there is a real balancing given the fact temporary market outages have caused the current price uptick. Read on, below here …  – Tom O’D

Analysts don’t expect OPEC to take any action Thursday, but sources told Reuters an output ceiling would be discussed. (©Aania-Fotolia/

By  1 June 2018 – 4:38 PM ET

Despite widespread expectations for an uneventful OPEC meeting Thursday, the oil cartel reportedly could discuss a collective production ceiling, which was abandoned in December.

Crude futures pared steep, early losses on the report, with Brent even turning positive briefly. Brent settled down 0.3% at $49.72 a barrel, while U.S. crude fell 0.2% to $49.01 a barrel.

Exxon Mobil (XOM) shares edged up 0.25%, reversing an earlier dip. BP (BP) shares fell 0.2%, Chevron (CVX) edged 0.1% higher, and Royal Dutch Shell (RDSA) added 0.8%.

Those set to attend the OPEC gathering said they have seen nothing on the agenda about discussing a ceiling, though countries like Venezuela want to discuss it, according to Thomas O’Donnell, a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a consulting firm.

He doubts that Saudi Arabia will do anything at the meeting, but added that even an agreement on a production ceiling probably wouldn’t prompt U.S. shale companies to frack their drilled but uncompleted wells.

The OPEC meeting comes just a month after talks broke down to freeze output for individual countries, largely on Saudi Arabia’s insistence that Iran must participate. Since then, oil prices have been on the uptick due to supply disruptions caused by wildfires in Canada and unrest in Libya and Nigeria.

But even if OPEC agrees on a ceiling, Russia is no longer interested in a freeze. Energy Minister Alexander Novak won’t be attending the meeting. While Russia isn’t part of OPEC, Novak had been in discussions with the group over a possible freeze.

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