Time to ease sanctions on US enemies to fight rival Russia?

The US State Department has given the green light to two companies to buy Venezuelan crude and supply it only to Europe, which is tasked with phase out 90% of Russian oil by the end of the year.

Russia currently supplies 27% of the oil imported from the EU and 40% of its gas, which has not yet been sanctioned. Europe’s $430 billion-a-year oil bills partly pay for Russia’s devastating war in Ukraine.

However, Europe must find quick alternatives to Russian energy at a time when stifled supply chains have created shortages around the world and sent oil prices skyrocketing.

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The United States, which is the largest oil producer in the world, consumes the oil that it drills on its territory. However, here too, oil producers had cut supply drastically with the onset of Covid and are not yet inclined to increase production for various reasons, and so the price at the pump is eating away at household budgets. The United States is also approaching an election cycle and the war in the Black Sea region is unlikely to abate.

In such a context, and in the midst of growing global and national pressure, the American president must go and buy oil from adversaries who have so far been sanctioned.

Venezuelan oil will be flowing to European shores again possibly as early as July after Italian oil company Eni SpA and Spain’s Repsol SA began importing crude after US sanctions on them were lifted. However, the oil they will buy will be in modest quantities and is unlikely to have a significant impact on fuel prices on the world market.
Reports indicate that the oil imports will not benefit the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA. According to a Reuters, the shipments will be counted as unpaid debts and overdue dividends provided they go to Europe.
However, other companies who persuaded the United States to let them buy from Venezuela amid supply shortages after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, have yet to receive similar concessions. These companies include India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corp Ltd (ONGC), US oil giant Chevron Corp and France’s Maurel & Prom SA. Negotiations could be held to ease over sanctions, but not before Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro begins talks with the opposition. Venezuela was sanctioned under former President Donald Trump over Maduro’s possible power grab tactics in the South American nation. Sanctions have ravaged Venezuela’s economy but have not ousted its president from power.
India’s ONGC and other oil companies stopped buying Venezuelan oil in the mid-2020s due to US pressure. This coincided with a growing pandemic as energy needs fell sharply. However, with oil prices skyrocketing, countries that were previously sanctioned are back in the picture. Besides Venezuela, this includes Iran.

For India, Venezuela and Iran were important trading partners before Western sanctions dried up their supply. The two nations are among those with the largest oil reserves in the world.

Oil Minister Hardeep Puri had said in a response to the Rajya Sabha in March: “We hope and expect that oil, not only from Venezuela, but from other countries under sanctions, will become available. I am hopeful that we will all collectively use our leeway…to ask the international community to make more oil available, including from Venezuela.”

In the absence of alternatives, India is buying Russian oil at a discount, a move that has made the West unhappy even though India remains at the bottom of the list of importers of Russian crude despite increasing its consumption.

Biden walking the tightrope

US President Biden, who during his campaigns had called Saudi Arabia a pariah state due to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, was forced to reconcile with the kingdom and its crown prince. Reports say Biden is set to visit the country after Saudi Arabia agreed to boost oil production at the recent OPEC+ meeting to fill shortages after avoiding action for months. Saudi Arabia is considered to have spare oil reserves that it can use to offset the decline in Russian oil.

However, Iran and Venezuela have been adversaries of the United States and reaching an agreement with them will be difficult for Biden because most Republicans and even some Democrats are opposed to normalizing relations with these countries without commitments or guarantees on Iran’s uranium enrichment or Venezuela’s democratic reforms.

Additionally, Venezuela, which has the world’s largest oil reserves and was once a major exporter to the United States, may not be able to rapidly increase exports as sanctions have crippled its oil industry.

Although talks on a nuclear deal with Iran are deadlocked, a deal could see Iran export more than 500,000 barrels of oil a day. Reports also indicate that Iran has a ready-to-ship stockpile of around 100 million barrels.

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