Blackout hits most Venezuelan states, Caracas

By Frank Jack Daniel

CARACAS (Reuters) – Blackouts hit most of Venezuela on Thursday, affecting oil output and the Caracas metro transit system in a major headache for President Hugo Chavez months after electricity rationing hurt his popularity.

Two oil projects with a combined capacity of 326,000 barrels a day had to restart after the failure and the capital’s metro trains ground to a halt during the evening rush hour, forcing thousands of commuters onto the streets.

Critics say Chavez’s socialist government has not invested enough in expanding electricity generation to meet fast-growing demand in South America’s top oil exporter.

Power was restored quickly in most states and the capital after outages that briefly knocked out more than half of Venezuela’s 17,500 megawatt capacity. But many regions were cut off again for short periods during the evening to ration energy as the system stabilized.

Vice President Elias Jaua blamed the power problems on forest fires that caused the failure of an 800-kilowatt cable.

“We want to apologize to the population for this incident, but also to recognize the maturity with which people acted,” Jaua said on state television, adding the system was not in crisis.

Throughout 2010, many Venezuelans were subjected to strict electricity and water rationing during a drought attributed to the El Nino weather phenomenon. Combined with an economic slump, the utilities crisis damaged Chavez’s popularity. He has since recovered in opinion polls.

At the time, Chavez canceled a plan to ration power in Caracas after a chaotic first day of cuts left poor, crime-ridden districts in the dark and workers stuck in elevators.

Thursday’s programed rationing did not affect Caracas, one of the world’s most lawless cities.

FOREST FIRE

Both the 146,000-bpd El Palito refinery and a 180,000-bpd upgrading joint venture with Chevron had to be restarted but were due to be working normally early on Friday, national oil company PDVSA said.

It said operations at three other oil upgraders were partially interrupted. Other refineries appeared to be operating normally in the OPEC member, but a PDVSA source said 20,000 bpd of production was halted at one oil field.

Rainfall and heavy investment in new oil-fired power stations helped overcome last year’s crisis. But experts have warned the national grid was still running close to capacity.

Just last week, a number of states were plunged into darkness by blackouts that also caused problems on the metro, which carries some 2 million people a day.

Chavez, who was first elected in 1998 and draws his support largely from working-class Venezuelans, is preparing a re-election bid in December 2012.

(Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga, Eyanir Chinea, Diego Ore and Mario Naranjo; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)

Blackout hits most Venezuelan states, Caracas