Monthly Archives: April 2014

El Niño: A destabilizing force in N. South America

Screen Shot 2014-04-27 at 11.17.53 PMEl Niño causes droughts in northern South America, killing cattle, harming water-dependent wildlife and forests, and slashing hydroelectricity output. It is often followed by La Niña. That’s not to say that floods only happen in La Niña years or droughts only happen with El Niño, but rather that the converse is true: La Niña years almost always bring floods and El Niño almost always brings drought to northern South America, and other disruptive effects elsewhere.

1988 La Niña Hurricanes Joan and Gilbert both affected northern South America, as did August flooding from the Magdalena river in Colombia to Ciudad Guayana, Venezuela.

1997-98 El Niño drought throughout northern Andes, cutting Peru’s growth by 2.8 percentage points and causing damages in Ecuador equal to 15 percent of GDP. Foreknowledge helped little.

1999 La Niña Caused the Vargas Tragedy, which may have killed 20,000 people in Venezuela, in December 1999.

2007-10 El Niño  drought that slashed power production in Venezuela, forcing the country to import fuel oil and food, slow output from the steel and aluminum industries, and start water and power rationing that never went away. Caracas reservoirs almost dried up.

2011 La Niña Catastrophic flooding in Colombia.

Screen Shot 2014-04-27 at 11.19.36 PM

Click for interactive chart

El Niño may well break the lengthy drought in Chile which would be mostly a good thing for humans, cattle, sheep, lettuce, glaciers and mining projects. (Click that link if you want to learn some good Chilean Spanish.) But further north, it could start another 2- or 3-year cycle of climatic instability. I hope the region is better-prepared now than it was a few years ago for this predictable chaos.

======UPDATE April 28=====

Thomas O’Donnell writes in with the following, which is so substantive that I am just going to put it here in the post as I don’t want it to be missed.

Colombia announced they are shutting off the gas pipeline to Venezuela, citing expected upcoming El Niño shortages of water for hydroelectric production; so, they have to save their gas (the contract allows this in the face of ‘acts of God’). Meanwhile, the contract is ending (June?) and the pipeline is scheduled to be reversed in Sept. after a new contract is negotiated. Of course, this won’t happen as Venezuela has no gas to send to Colombia However, although people say the cutoff is because Venezuela might not be paying for the gas (which is of course likely), meanwhile, I am told by people who know the gas sector and Zulia well that in fact the El Niño explanation Colombia gives is a very real issue.

So, on top of all the other deep troubles in the west of Venezuela (Zulia and Tachira) face, presages serious shortages of gas for cooking and for electrical generation there. So, as you say, many effects of the swings in weather cycles… but esp. on top of a totally dysfunctional Venezuelan state that’s certainly not prepared whatsoever. Recall all the preoccupation with exactly how many meters and centimeters behind the damn at Guri a few years back? Here we go again!

Guri, as it happens, is in much better shape than it was in the 2010 El Niño, which followed showed up while Venezuela was still in a drought that started with the 2007 El Niño. But this is a great illustration of the kind of disruption that happens even with the kind of climate variability that is well within the historic norm.

Now think about how this bodes for climate changes that exceed historic norms.

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Lucky Igbinedion mixed up in Arevenca case, gets press in Nigeria

The weirdest case I’ve tracked since I started this blog has been that of Skanga, a little unknown Nigerian company that is suing Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) for at least $100 million for supposedly taking part in an advance-fee fraud against the Nigerian company. It’s a long and convoluted story. I wrote up one piece last year in a piece called, “PDVSA faces $100 million lawsuit over ambassador’s alleged con man links.” I also wrote a little piece on the same topic in Venezuela’s El Mundo newspaper at the time. Later, I gave a little update on the Venezuelan ambassador at the center of the scandal.

Today, I see my pal Nicholas Ibekwe has published a story based on the latest filings in the case, which show that corrupt (no “allegedly” needed, he pleaded guilty to money laundering) Nigerian governor Lucky Igbinedion and his brother Bright were the registered owners of Skanga during the period in question. There is more, much more, but for now I want to point people to Nicholas’s story. I have to admit I don’t like the style of Nigerian journalism — I would never write that I “can authoritatively reveal” anything. But I’m happy to see this story getting a bit of play in Nigeria, where most of the weirdness went down. One way or another, the people who took part in this game deserve a bit of publicity. Whether it’s for their cleverness or foolishness isn’t for me to decide. The story link again.

Infrastructure notes: Bolivia soars, Venezuela, well, hmm

Screen Shot 2014-04-27 at 11.08.43 AMThanks to a series of tweets last night by Omar I learned that La Paz, Bolivia has opened the world’s longest teleferico, part of a new 10-km, three-line system of “metrocables” to connect the higher parts of the city with the lower. La Paz joins Medellín, Rio de Janeiro and Caracas in using metrocables to connect the hills, which in all four cities are poorer areas, with the job-rich center. Urban thinkers love metrocables*. They are like helicopters for poor people, leaping the staircases, highways and gang wars that once cut hill-dwellers off from the crystal palaces of downtown. They’re fun to ride and are relatively cheap, compared to subways or helicopters.

Did I say relatively cheap? Yes, that’s one of the selling points. The urban part of Medellín’s system cost something like $71 million for 4.7 km. (The documents on this are eluding me after hours of searching Colombian government web sites, which is a bit suspicious, but this online rant has the highest numbers I’ve seen, so let’s go with it.) That’s $15,106 per meter. According to these technical specifications, La Paz is building its 10,377-meter system for $235 million, or $22,615 per meter. Caracas built its 1.8-km San Agustín system for $257 million, or $142,777 per meter. That was 55 times more than the 10 billion old bolivars ($4.6 million) originally planned. The Caracas system overruns were in part because of gold-plating — check out the oversized, marble-floored stations — and quite likely in part because of corruption, though no, I don’t have the goods on that. Congratulations Country X.

That’s not to say that Venezuela can’t do anything fast and cheap. When I was there in December, I was surprised to see the national government building a new bridge over the Güaire river to connect the congested La Mercedes neighborhood with the freeway on the other side of the river. It was a very odd project, as the bridge was being built with minimal foundations at each end and was just a series of cheap trusses with a bit of asphalt on top — military campaign bridges pressed into service for heavy urban use. The turning radiuses to get on the bridge seemed horribly tight and it all looked like a recipe for yet more congestion in Las Mercedes, but who am I to complain — Caracas certainly needs more connectivity.

Well, turns out that my concerns about congestion and turning radii were off base. The bridge opened in early December. Yesterday, this happened. So it goes.

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Spear-phishing, the last refuge for scoundrels who don’t even have patriotism

So I’ve been getting a lot of these lately:

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 7.35.20 PMIt’s an e-mail (often from a @zoho.com address), sending what looks like an article from El Universal, the Venezuelan newspaper. Oh, here’s one that specifically tries to look like it’s from El Universal: Continue reading

Oil notes from around South America

You have no idea how many half-written blog posts I have in my stack. Not going to publish before their time. But here are a few interesting things to keep you busy:

Flooding in the Neuquén province of Argentina is causing problems for the local oil industry, including a truck stuck in a washout and a spill of crude oil and produced water.

El Cartel Negro is a remarkable investigation of how organized crime dominates Pemex, Mexico’s state oil company. The book is now available at Amazon and other on-line vendors. I’m reading it, I’ll try and review it at some point.

Colombian oil drilling is being blamed (passive mood quite intentional, I don’t know who’s behind this campaign) for a drought in Casanare. I have no idea if there’s anything to these accusations, but I have written before about how oil drilling in the Colombian llanos is really water drilling with a bit of oil mixed in.

Cuba is using Dassault Falcons with Venezuelan registrations as presidential jets. I can’t find much info about who owns these

Speaking of PDVSA, the company is continuing to provide millions of dollars a year for a Formula 1 racing team. (Thanks SM for the heads-up on that.) Cash crunch, what cash crunch?

US Senator Marco Rubio has been making a stink about Venezuela as a human rights violator, and threatening to revoke visitor visas for some government figures. He also says the US shouldn’t impose sanctions on Venezuelan oil.

Rebecca Solnit gives the very big picture on how the oil industry is a giant case of institutional violence.

If you want little tidbits like this all the time, you should subscribe to my Twitter feed. I may be off in the Great White North but I continue to track South American oil and energy.