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San Francisco Chronicle: Chavez drives a hard bargain, but Big Oil’s options are limited

Tigre, Venezuela — On the hot, shrub-covered plains around this dusty, dingy town, an odd courtship is being carried out between the world’s most prominent revolutionary and the world’s biggest oil companies.

Just as there is no love between President Hugo Chavez and the Bush administration, there is little love lost between Chavez and the foreign oilmen who are pumping up the huge reservoirs of underground oil. But they need each other. The United States needs Venezuela to help quench its bottomless thirst for oil, and Chavez needs America to buy it from him in order to fund his dreams of spreading his leftist ideology around the hemisphere.

The stakes here are huge. The area around El Tigre, known as the Orinoco Oil Belt, possesses the world’s biggest petroleum reserves — 1.3 trillion barrels of so-called extra-heavy oil. Chevron, Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips and dozens of other foreign firms are here, using recently developed technologies to extract the tarlike, sulfurous crude and refine it.

“Everyone agrees that the Orinoco Belt has the biggest reserves in the world,” said Alberto Quiros, a Chavez critic and former president of Royal Dutch Shell’s Venezuela operations. “What Chavez will do with them is another question, but there’s no doubt that Venezuela will take Saudi Arabia’s place as No. 1.”

San Francisco Chronicle
 

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