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Venezuela’s oil spill crisis reached new heights in 2022: report

  • There were 86 oil spills and gas leaks in Venezuela last year, according to a report published by the Observatory of Political Ecology of Venezuela.
  • The states of Zulia and Falcón had the most spills, with 31 and 29, respectfully. In both areas, the spills threatened marine ecosystems in the Caribbean and Lake Maracaibo.
  • The spills are a result of aging infrastructure and a lack of regulations needed to maintain the country’s massive oil industry, the report said.

Venezuela sits on one of the largest deposits of proven crude oil and natural gas reserves in the world. For decades, it’s been the backbone, if not the lifeline, of the national economy. But the country also has a terrible track record of oil spills, with aging infrastructure and weak regulations resulting in near-continual environmental disaster.

Last year was no different. A new report from the Observatory of Political Ecology of Venezuela says the country experienced a rise in oil spills and gas leaks in 2022, with no sign of government action to address what has become an endemic problem in oil-producing states.

“There are more and more reports of spills,” said Elsa Rodríguez, a member of the observatory. “There’s been a kind of collapse of the oil industry.”

There were at least 86 oil spills and gas leaks in Venezuela last year, up from 77 spills in 2021, the report said. Spills are often the result of pipelines and storage containers that rarely receive routine checkups, let alone repairs.

Many oil refineries and storage facilities in the country are located less than 50 kilometers (31 miles) away from protected areas, according to a separate USAID analysis. Sometimes, they’re less than 10 km (6.2 mi) away. And when leaks happen, it can be days or even weeks until a cleanup effort is carried out.

Venezuela is home to 3,409 marine species, according to UNESCO’s Ocean Biodiversity Information System, with oil spills being one of the primary threats against them.

Oil sludge collecting on the shore in Venezuela. (Photo courtesy of OEP)

Zulia, a state in northwestern Venezuela, experienced a leading 31 spills, many of them damaging Lake Maracaibo, home to brackish and freshwater ecosystems with high levels of biodiversity. The area is also home to local communities who rely on the waters for fishing and the surrounding fertile land for agriculture.

In February, farmers spoke out about oil spills, sharing images of cattle that had been completely stained black from a nearby oil spill. And in June, another spill reported in the lake by residents measured 15 km (9.3 mi) across.

“There’s a big socio-environmental impact from pollution and gas emissions,” Rodríguez said. “More attention needs to be paid to that because a lot of the surrounding communities are very vulnerable, and they’re greatly affected.”

She added, “This is worrying because the state isn’t being held responsible for these losses, which are not only economic but also impact people’s lives, including their health.”

The state of Falcón, just east of Zulia, had the second-most oil spills, with 29. Anzoátegui had 14 oil spills, while Monagas had five. Carabobo had three, and Delta Amacuro and Portuguesa each had two, the report said. However, Rodríguez said it’s possible that hundreds of spills have gone unreported.

Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state-owned oil company, hasn’t published oil spill data since 2016, forcing the observatory to rely on satellite images collected by researcher Eduardo Klein, a marine ecology professor at Simón Bolívar University in Caracas. The observatory also tracked local media reports and social media posts, many from residents speaking out about polluted farmland and drinking water.

Cattle in Zulia state stained black by an oil spill in February. (Photo courtesy of Twitter/ReporteYa)

“Usually, there’s absolute silence about these types of accidents, not only from the oil industry, which is responsible for using the equipment and facilities and responding to these types of accidents, but also from other state agencies,” Klein said. “There’s a smokescreen of information. There’s no way to get details about the amount and type of product that was spilled.”

PDVSA and Chevron didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article.

Venezuela has around 300 billion barrels of oil reserves, according to OPEC. It also has 5.5 billion barrels of proven natural gas reserves. Last year, it produced around 600,000 barrels per day, reportedly below its target goal of a million barrels per day.

However, the country could produce more moving into 2023, thanks to eased international sanctions. Last November, the US granted the oil giant Chevron a temporary license to expand operations amid ongoing global gas shortages.

“Any initiative to start or increase oil production — the risk of accidents is very great and the impact on environmental systems is enormous,” Klein said.

Banner image: Local boats in Venezuela. Photo courtesy of Chevron.


USAID. (2022). Venezuela FAA118/119 Tropical Forest and Biodiversity Analysis. Retrieved from

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