How the Venezuelan oil industry has devastated the environment

Every morning, José Aguilera inspects the leaves of his banana and coffee plants on his farm in eastern Venezuela and calculates how much he can harvest—almost nothing.

Explosive gases released from nearby oil wells spread an oily, flammable residue on the plants. The leaves burn, dry and wither.

“There is no poison that can fight oil,” he said. “When it falls, everything dries up.”

Venezuela’s oil industry, which helped transform the country’s fortunes, has been decimated by mismanagement and several years of US sanctions imposed on the country’s authoritarian government, leaving behind a devastated economy and devastated environment.

The state-owned oil company has struggled to maintain minimal production for export to other countries, as well as domestic consumption. But to do so it has sacrificed basic maintenance and relied on increasingly substandard equipment which has led to a growing environmental toll, environmental activists say.

Mr. Aguilera lives in El Tejero, a city about 300 miles east of Caracas, the capital, in an oil-rich region known for cities that never see the dark of night. Gas flares from oil wells ignite at all hours with thunderous thunder, their vibrations causing the walls of rickety houses to collapse.

Many residents complain of having respiratory illnesses such as asthma, which scientists say can be exacerbated by gas rocket emissions. The rain brings down an oily patina that corrodes car engines, darkens white clothes and stains the exercise books that children take to school.

Yet paradoxically, widespread fuel shortages in the country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves mean that virtually no one in this region has gas to cook at home.

Soon after President Hugo Chávez came to power in the 1990s with a promise to use the country’s oil wealth to lift the poor, he fired thousands of oil workers, including engineers and geologists, and replaced them with political supporters, seized control of foreign-owned oil resources, neglected safety and sent mental standards.

Then, in 2019, the United States accused Chavez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro, of electoral fraud and imposed economic sanctions, including a ban on Venezuelan oil imports, to try to oust him from power.

The country’s economy collapsed, helping to fuel a mass exodus of Venezuelans who could not afford to feed their families even as Maduro managed to maintain his repressive grip on power.

After nearing a halt, the oil sector has rebounded modestly, in part because the Biden administration last year allowed Chevron, the last American oil company in Venezuela, to restart operations on a limited basis.

The travails of the domestic oil industry have been exacerbated by a corruption investigation involving missing oil money that has so far led to dozens of arrests and the resignation of the country’s petroleum minister.

In eastern Venezuela, rusting refineries burn methane gas that is part of the operations of the fossil fuel industry and a major driver of global warming.

Even though Venezuela produces far less oil than it once did, it ranks third in the world in methane emissions per barrel of oil produced, according to the International Energy Agency.

Cabimas, a city about 400 miles west of Caracas on the shores of Lake Maracaibo, is another regional oil production center. There, the state oil company, PDVSA, has built hospitals and schools, set up summer camps and provided residents with Christmas toys.

Oil now seeps from deteriorating underwater pipelines into the lake, coating the shores and turning the water a neon green can be seen from space. Broken pipes float to the surface and oil drills rust and sink in the water. Oil-coated birds struggle to fly.

The collapse of the oil industry has left Cabimas, once one of Venezuela’s wealthiest communities, in dire poverty.

Every day at 5 a.m., the three Méndez brothers — Miguel, 16, Diego, 14, and Manuel, 13 — untangle their fishing nets, clean them, and paddle through the polluted waters of Lake Maracaibo, hoping to catch enough shrimp and fish to feed themselves, their parents and their younger sister.

They use gasoline to wash the oil off their skin.

Children play and bathe in the water, which smells like decaying marine life.

The boys’ father, Nelson Mendez, 58, was once a commercial fisherman, when the lake was cleaner. He worries about getting sick from eating what his children take, but he worries more about hunger.

He said he was hired by the state oil company about 10 years ago to help clean up a fuel spill in the lake, but the job has damaged his eyesight.

“Everything I’ve worked for in my life, I’ve lost to oil,” Méndez said.

Poorly maintained fuel-producing machinery in Lake Maracaibo has led to an increase in oil spills, which have contaminated Cabimas and other communities along its shoreline, according to local organizations dealing with the problem.

Gas flares burning in parts of Venezuela also point to the country’s weakening fossil fuel industry: So much gas is being expelled into the atmosphere because there isn’t enough functioning equipment to convert it to fuel, experts say.

Venezuela is among the worst countries in the world in terms of the volume of gas flares produced by its decrepit fueling operations, according to the World Bank.

In 2021 relationshipthe UN Human Rights Commission has expressed deep concern about the state of the Venezuelan oil industry.

“It is imperative that the government effectively implement its environmental regulatory framework on the oil industry,” the report said.

At the UN climate change summit last year, Maduro failed to address the environmental damage from his country’s oil industry.

Instead, he said Venezuela was responsible for less than 0.4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and accused richer countries of causing environmental damage. (Experts say the figure is accurate, and note that the country’s emissions have fallen as its oil industry collapsed.)

“The Venezuelan people must pay the consequences of an imbalance caused by the world’s main capitalist economies,” Maduro said in a speech at the summit.

A senior government minister, Josué Alejandro Lorca, said in 2021 that oil spills “were not a big deal because, historically, all oil companies have had them.” He added that the government lacked the resources to address the problem.

The state oil company did not respond to requests for comment.

In Cabimas, David Colina, 46, a fisherman, wears an oil-stained orange overall with the state oil company’s distinctive emblem.

Thirty years ago, he said, he could catch more than 200 pounds of fish. Now he’s lucky if he picks up 25 pounds in his net before exchanging it for his neighbors’ flour or rice.

When the state oil company was running better, Mr. Colina said, he would be compensated if an oil spill affected his fishery. But now, he added, “there is no longer the government here”.

After Chevron announced last year that it would resume some oil production in Venezuela, the state oil company has hired divers to inspect pipelines in Lake Maracaibo.

So far, according to interviews with three of those divers, the leaky pipes still need to be fixed. The divers spoke anonymously because they said they could be punished for revealing inside company information. A Chevron representative declined to comment and questioned the Venezuelan state oil company.

Francisco Barrios, 62, also a resident of Cabimas, has repaired boats used by the oil industry for more than 20 years, earning enough to feed his five children and pay for their education.

But he was disappointed, he said, by the decline of the industry, the pollution it was causing, increasingly substandard infrastructure and a salary that couldn’t keep up with the rising cost of living.

He said one of his sons, who was a scuba diver, was killed 12 years ago when an underwater pipe he was repairing burst.

“I got tired of seeing the destruction,” he said as he used gasoline to try to remove the oil he’d seen in his yard.

Genevieve Glatsky contributed reporting from Bogotá, Colombia, and Ronny Rodríguez from El Tejero, Venezuela.