Tanker Traffic to Venezuela Suggests Oil Export Rebound

Nov 11 (Reuters) - At least 18 oil tankers are expected to load oil for export from Venezuela in the coming weeks, according to tracking data and internal documents from state-run PDVSA, in a sign the sanctioned OPEC nation's crude exports may rebound this month.

Venezuela's oil exports fell to their lowest levels since the 1940s in October, as some of Petroleos de Venezuela's last remaining clients halted trade with the company ahead of a deadline imposed by the United States.

Washington sanctioned PDVSA and its partners last year to pressure Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to step down.

But Maduro remains in power, and the potential rebound in oil shipments comes as PDVSA is adapting to a tightening of U.S. sanctions by copying shipping tactics from Iran to hide vessels loading in Venezuela, and engaging in trade deals with customers in Russia that resell the oil to Asian buyers.

Common tactics that vessels now employ include using multiple transfers from one ship to another to disguise the origin of each cargo, traveling to Venezuela with their location transponders switched off to avoid detection, and frequently changing their names, flags, operators and owners.

So far in November, nine tankers have loaded almost 6 million barrels of Venezuelan crude and fuel for exports, according to internal PDVSA documents.

That amounts to more than 500,000 barrels per day (bpd) so far in November. In October, Venezuela's oil exports plummeted to 359,000 bpd, the lowest level since early 1940s.

Of the nine tankers, one was chartered by Thailand's Tipco Asphalt PCL and five by PDVSA's new customers based in Russia. The remaining three carried oil to Cuba under a long-standing supply agreement and to undisclosed customers in Europe and the Caribbean.

Tipco said in a statement it had chartered several tankers to load in September and October, but these were delayed because of "operational difficulties."

In September, it told the Thai stock exchange it was "taking steps" to comply with a U.S. request to stop buying Venezuelan crude.

PDVSA did not respond to a request for comment.

Five other Cameroonian-flagged tankers, with the capacity to lift millions of barrels of oil, are crossing the Atlantic towards Venezuela with their Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) turned off, according to vessel-tracking service TankerTrackers.com.

Most of those vessels have touched Venezuelan ports at least once this year.

PDVSA is also preparing to send this month several tankers that it had hired for domestic transportation under time-charter contracts to exports destinations, a strategy it began in August after some vessel owners stopped shipping Venezuelan oil due to sanctions.

In addition, two China-flagged very large crude carriers (VLCC) owned by PetroChina Co Ltd - able to transport some 2 million barrels of crude each - are in Venezuelan waters near PDVSA's Jose terminal waiting to load, Refinitiv Eikon data show.

The Xingye and Thousand Sunny are signaling their destination as Aruba - common practice for tankers sailing to Venezuela since sanctions were implemented.

The vessels, formerly known as the Boyaca and Junin, respectively, were previously owned by a PDVSA-PetroChina joint venture, which collapsed last year after sanctions.

This is first time the vessels have returned to Venezuelan waters since they were transferred to PetroChina.

Petrochina did not respond to a request for comment.

The drop in exports this year led to a surge in inventories, forcing PDVSA to slash production in the extra-heavy Orinoco Oil Belt, Venezuela's biggest production region.

But PDVSA's Petromonagas and Petrosinovensa projects in the Orinoco - joint ventures with Russian and Chinese state firms, respectively - restarted output late in the third quarter and were together producing some 93,000 bpd of crude in mid-October, a PDVSA document showed.

Petrosinovensa also had two blending trains active to produce exportable Merey crude as of Nov. 9, according to the PDVSA documents.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York and Marianna Parraga in Mexico City Additional reporting by Chen Aizhu in Singapore and Deisy Buitrago in Caracas Editing by Marguerita Choy)

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