Venezuela's Citgo, Which Refines 5% Of US Gasoline, Is Weighing Bankruptcy

In the latest salvo to emerge from the escalating fight between the Trump administration and Venezuela’s ruling Maduro regime over control of the South American country’s state-owned energy assets, the WSJ reports that in order to protect its operations, Venezuela’s Citgo Petroleum is considering various options, including filing for bankruptcy.

Citgo, which is among the largest refiners in the U.S., is weighing its options while the White House attempts to shift control of Venezuela’s assets from President Nicolás Maduro to opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom the U.S. has recognized as the legitimate head of state prompting accusations by the Maduro regime that the US is fomenting a presidential coup.

In addition to control over the military, control of Venezuela’s state-owned assets is seen as key to the country’s political fate, and the tussle is forcing Citgo to consider U.S. bankruptcy proceedings as one of several plans drafted by some executives and advisers, the WSJ reports citing people familiar.

Reached for comment, a Citgo spokesman said Thursday the company is “profitable, solvent and has contingency plans to successfully manage the recent events.” Meanwhile, the US responded that the US goal is for Citgo to remain viable, but not under Maduro control.

While Citgo’s financial pressures aren’t pressing as of this moment, a bankruptcy filing could stabilize operations while providing an organized forum for restructuring its debt, dealing with a looming governance crisis and sorting out competing creditor claims on the company’s assets, with the WSJ reporting that Citgo, which is owned by defaulted state oil giant Petróleos de Venezuela SA, or PdVSA which was hit by US sanctions this week in an attempt to cripple the Maduro regime, has retained law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP for legal advice on several contingency plans.

And while a bankruptcy could provide a period of calm during the ongoing political duel, a potential problem emerges as the list of creditors circling Citgo as a source of repayment includes PdVSA bondholders, several North American companies that had their operations in Venezuela seized and nationalized, but most importantly Russian state oil company OAO Rosneft.

The issue is that should Citgo file for bankruptcy, Russia's Rosneft could become an owner of 49.9% of the company's equity, unleashing yet another diplomatic crisis as Moscow becomes the defacto minority owner of one of the largest refiners on US soil.

Speaking of which, Citgo runs three refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast that support more than 3,000 U.S. jobs and supply thousands of Citgo-branded gasoline stations. Of these, the largest is the Lake Charles facility, which has a daily refining capacity of 425,000 bpd.

As such any prolonged impairment of operations would likely result in a drop in gasoline output and potentially a spike in US gasoline prices.

Which also explains why US officials said they are working to ensure Citgo, which represents around 5% of U.S. refining capacity, stays operational as they try to transfer control of the company and the country’s other assets to Mr. Guaidó. It was not immediately clear how the US can prevent Citgo from filing in the US if its Venezuela owners decide that is the only way to preserve ownership of the assets.