Another day, another Amazon oil spill

PetroPerú tries its hand at environmental devastation. Environmental Health News writes it up in English:

On the last day of June, Roger Mangía Vega watched an oil slick and a mass of dead fish float past this tiny Kukama Indian community and into the Marañón River, a major tributary of the Amazon.

Community leaders called the emergency number for Petroperu, the state-run operator of the 845-kilometer pipeline that pumps crude oil from the Amazon over the Andes Mountains to a port on Peru’s northern coast.

By late afternoon, Mangía and a handful of his neighbors – contracted by the company and wearing only ordinary clothing – were up to their necks in oily water, searching for a leak in the pipe. Villagers, who depend on fish for subsistence and income, estimated that they had seen between two and seven tons of dead fish floating in lagoons and littering the landscape.

“It was the most horrible thing I’ve seen in my life – the amount of oil, the huge number of dead fish and my Kukama brothers working without the necessary protection,” said Ander Ordóñez Mozombite, an environmental monitor for an indigenous community group called Acodecospat who visited the site a few days later.

Read it all here.

And on July 2, PetroEcuador had a freakishly similar situation. Amazon Watch offers the details: Continue reading

The mysterious winners of a $644 million arbitration against PDVSA

PDVSA, Venezuela’s state oil company, released financial statements last month. One of the more remarkable items in there was a $644 million loss for an arbitration award in a case that I had never heard about before — and no Venezuela expert I’ve talked to had heard about, either. This is all that PDVSA has ever disclosed about the case:

In November 2013, the award related to the arbitration request filed by Gulmar Offshore Middle East LLC and Kaplan Industry Inc. was issued against PDVSA, corresponding to early unilateral termination of contract by PDVSA. The award established a compensation of $644 million.

That is a tremendous amount of money. I wrote last week in REDD Intelligence (subscription needed to read) about what this surprise means for Venezuela’s country risk. Here, I’m going to focus instead on what we know about the companies that won this money.

I had only heard of Gulmar Offshore as one of a long list of companies with assets that Venezuela expropriated back in 2009. I had never heard of Kaplan, as it was misspelled in the initial announcement (good English analysis here) as “Kapplan.”

Gulmar was, and is, a company that leases vessels for undersea projects in the oil industry. It was later purchased by Oaktree Capital Management (more on them later). Back in 2009, I had a hard time reaching them; for this article the one phone number I found didn’t even ring and Oaktree’s lawyer didn’t respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

Kaplan is more difficult to pin down. Bloomberg said that Kaplan was a gas-cylinder manufacturer from New Jersey. Oops! That’s Kaplan Industries.

Kaplan Industry website, unchanged since 2010

Kaplan Industry website, unchanged since 2010

No, this was Kaplan Industry. At the top of its web page, it says it’s “An engineering design firm.” Then in the text, it’s “a leading independent international development consultancy.” The confusion may have come about as the website was thrown together, almost entirely plagiarized from other sites. The home page is from Adam Smith International, some of the “About” page is from Secunda Canada, and the line “Having fun inspires creativity, which rouses fresh ideas that we take to our clients” is from Zain Public Relations. Yes, having fun inspires creativity. And nothing demonstrates creativity like “copy-paste.”

No one answered at any of the three phone numbers listed on the website. Company president Vince Hulan didn’t respond to e-mails sent to the address on the website, including one e-mail asking specific questions about the plagiarism and other concerns raised in this article. Four lawyers connected to the company and its principals also failed to return calls and e-mails.

Continue reading

The untold story of Torre de David

Today we get word that the Torre de David in Caracas may be sold/given/loaned/something to a Chinese group to use as offices. This is good news.

The tower, also known as Torre Confinanzas, has become world-famous as a “vertical slum.” Or as I called it in a report on Monocle24, the world’s only squat with a heliport. It’s a 45-story building with a heliport, atrium, and parking garage. When mostly built in 1994, it was abandoned because of financing problems related to a banking crisis in Venezuela. The government’s bank intervenor, Fogade, took ownership of the tower, but did nothing with it for years. The place became a dangerous squat.

In 2007, the mayor of Caracas, Juan Barreto, helped organize the mass invasion of the tower by hundreds, if not thousands, of families. Within days, hundreds of families stayed there night and day, clearing out trash, booting the addicts who had been squatting there in a less dignified way, clearing out corpses of animals and who knows what else. In the end, the popuation of the building swelled to as much as 5,000. Residents built apartments in the skeleton of the old office building. Today, it’s a barrio (slum) like almost any other — a few things about it are better than the typical peripheral slum, especially the location, professional security controlling access, and decent conflict resolution through a system of floor councils and a building council. Other things are worse, like the danger of falling to one’s death through unfinished shaftways. And many things are about the same — unreliable water, lots of stairs to arrive at one’s home, broken sewer lines.

That’s all old news, right? It’s been in a hundred articles, videos and radio reports (guilty!). But here’s a part that few people know:

Somewhere in the middle of the 2000′s, Fogade prepared to sell the building. A private developer was ready to spend US$50 million on it, and committed to investing another $50 million to complete the building. According to my source inside Fogade, the contracts were written and ready to sign. And then President Hugo Chávez heard about it. He forbade Fogade from selling the building. It would be more fitting as the headquarters of a ministry, rather than being in private hands, Chávez supposedly said.

But the ministries never got the money to complete and refurbish the buildings, and before they could, it was a formal squat and nobody wanted to evict thousands of people.

This isn’t an energy story, but it’s a good story about what happens when ideology gets in the way of policy. I know a lot of people who fight against privatization of anything. In this case, what good did it do to avoid privatization? This building got lived in for 7 years, some kids fell to their deaths, and now the building ends up privatized anyway. It’s hard for me to see this as a big win.

I am just glad to know that the government may find someone who can use the tower for its best and highest use, and that the residents might be given homes. Sadly, their new homes are likely to be crappy, and a similar cycle is most likely to begin anew.

About that $12 billion gold miner in Venezuela

Las Cristinas landscape from helicopter, January 2009

Las Cristinas, Venezuela’s most promising gold resource, 2009. Courtesy of BM.

I can’t stop thinking about the fact that Venezuela’s central bank bought 40% of the country’s state gold miner from the state oil company and paid $12 billion. That values the company as a whole at $30 billion.

We know from Rusoro and a series of other gold companies, some of whose names can not be spoken aloud, that mining for gold in Venezuela is barely, if at all, profitable. The output must be sold at the official exchange rate. That means that gold prices in Venezuela are the cheapest in the world. It gives some employment to an otherwise depressed part of the country, sure. And the central bank probably does build up a few ounces a year of gold holdings from these mines. But $12 billion. That is a lot of money. By comparison, Rusoro, which had real mines and real employees, and actually tried to mine the resources profitably, even months before it lost its mines to the government, had a market capitalization of less than $100 million.

Why? Why would the BCV make such a fiction as to pay $12 billion dollars for a near-worthless asset? Why do an 11-digit transaction? All I can wonder is whether someone got the usual M&A commissions. I don’t know, but if the commissions were set up proportionately to the year’s other deal of the same order of magnitude, commissions may have been in the tens of millions of dollars: advisor fees for the Glencore-Xstrata deal were reportedly $140 million, on a transaction valued as high as $90 million. If someone did get a commission here, I suppose they earned it.

UPDATE June 27: BCV got a bargain. PDVSA previously said the gold company was worth $40 billion. This valuation appears to be a simple multiplication of proved ounces x gold price, as though there were no costs involved in extracting gold, no risk of gold price changes, and no political risk. That makes sense.

UPDATE2: Gustavo Coronel blows a fuse.

UPDATE3 June 29: As Gustavo rightly points out, the only known asset of this particular state gold miner is the Las Cristinas-Brisas gold and copper deposit, which has had quite a history. Earlier, I referred to Venezuelan gold output, but that is all at Minerven.

PDVSA financials: pena ajena (updated)

There was a time when I took some pleasure in finding concealed admissions of weakness hidden within the rosy financial results of Venezuela’s state oil company. Today, I read them and I am just embarrassed. Writing about these numbers is like watching the end of bullfight. The once mighty beast is crippled, bleeding and it seems in bad taste to stare.

You can find plenty of articles about sales, production volumes, and “net income,” whatever that means for a company like this. Let me just point out a couple tables that show what’s going on: Continue reading

About the post drought

In case you haven’t noticed, I have been posting here very little. I have been tweeting more at @guacamayan. over there I have a more catholic approach to the world. I am not writing exclusively about energy and Latin America, but rather allow myself to express opinions and share news about anything that crosses my mind. I hope it’s useful and informative to some.

I have, in fact, been writing a lot, but mostly for pay. I also have some draft posts behind the curtain here, some of which will go public one day, probably after I am once more able to use my right hand and can thereby operate the keyboard once more.

I think every one-person website is going to go through phases, and blogs are definitely not where the kids are going for their information these days. But all the same, I will keep posting here at some point. Keep in touch.

Poderopedia does Venezuela

Screen Shot 2014-05-21 at 7.19.23 PMPoderopedia is an interesting concept. It’s a social network map of powerful people in one country or another. It started in Chile, which is a good place for it. Chile, despite scoring well on some measures of social mobility, isn’t really all that mobile at the very top end. The billionaire class is compact, made up of a long-lived oligarchy with massively overlapping interests. The social network map is crucial to understanding the country. We’re talking here about a country where the main respectable newspapers, El Mercurio, La Tercera and La Segunda, all devote multiple color pages EVERY DAY to social event photos. Social pages are, essentially, social network maps: who was talking to whom, and where.

Now, Poderopedia is off to Venezuela, where it faces a much more challenging task. Venezuela, in theory, has had middling social mobility, but the lived experience is that people can make it. Sure, there are still a few people around who are descended from the old aristocracy, but many of them have little to show for their fancy names. And today, we’ve been through the rise and fall of many newish dynasties along with big flash in the pan banks, booming retailers and new industrial players. The last decade has been especially important at creating huge new-money power centers from families that were, in some cases, living with dirt floors just a few years earlier. Within these groups, the connections are often hard to suss out. I once had the pleasure of asking someone about the reputation of a wealthy Venezuelan, only to later learn that the subject of my inquiries was, secretly, my source’s employer. Continue reading