UPDATE 6-Venezuela ends independent oil data certification

 * Move may add to skepticism over Venezuela figures
 * Government says oil exports fell 16 pct in Feb
 * Says total production was 2.77 mln bpd that month
 (Adds industry source, paragraph 11)
 By Daniel Wallis
 CARACAS, March 29 (Reuters) - Venezuela said on Tuesday it
was no longer publishing oil production and export data
certified by an independent auditor in a move that will likely
add to skepticism over the OPEC member's assessment of its
vital crude sector.
 The socialist government of President Hugo Chavez routinely
gives higher figures for the main export by South America's
biggest crude producer than those provided by bodies including
OPEC and estimates from industry experts.
 The Energy Ministry said in a report on Tuesday that
exports had declined 16 percent to 2.17 million barrels per day
(bpd) in February compared with the month before.
 <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
 Table of export data: http://r.reuters.com/feh36r
 ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^>
 It also said overall oil production was 2.77 mln bpd in
February, down from 2.90 mln bpd in January, but in line with
output during the months before that.
 "From this month on, we shall no longer be commissioning or
publishing export/import or domestic market certificates," the
ministry added in its report.
 Sources at the ministry could not immediately elaborate.
Venezuela's oil data had been certified by Inspectorate, the
commodity inspection branch of French company Bureau Veritas.
 The decision to end certification comes a month after the
authorities in Caracas said output last year fell to its lowest
level since a strike in 2002. [ID:nN01166956]
 Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez told a local television
station on Sunday that Venezuela aimed to boost overall oil
production by two-thirds or more to 4.5 million or 5 million
bpd over the next three years. [ID:nN27130518]
 OUTPUT QUESTIONS
 The government's initial move to publish audited statistics
had been an effort to dispel doubts about the official data.
 Beginning in January last year, Caracas added overall
production levels, also certified by Inspectorate, to the
audited export figures that it was already publishing.
 The data had originally been sought to change the views of
Venezuelan production among influential analysts and groups
including the IEA and OPEC, neither of which showed a major
revision upward in their estimates, an industry source said.
 Underlining the uncertainty over the real performance of
country's oil sector now and in recent years, OPEC said in its
latest annual report that the country's crude production had
declined slowly to 2.88 million bpd in 2009.
 Chavez's government says it was actually 3.01 million bpd.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates
Venezuela's crude output was just 2.20 million bpd in 2009.
 Venezuela sits on some of the largest oil reserves in the
world. But several factors, including OPEC output cuts, bad
weather and low investment by state oil company PDVSA have
contributed to falling production in the past two years.
 Venezuelan supplies to the United States, the top consumer
of the OPEC nation's crude, have waned. Data from the U.S. EIA
show U.S. imports of Venezuelan crude averaged about 890,000
bpd in February, down about 110,000 bpd from January.
 For the first three weeks of March, they have averaged less
than 750,000 bpd, according to the EIA.
 A wave of nationalizations has also crimped production,
with PDVSA struggling to take on field and drilling services
that were previously carried out by private companies.
 Oil sales provide 95 percent of the nation's export
revenue, so declining output is a headache for Chavez, who uses
the income to fund wide-ranging social programs and is expected
to ramp up state spending ahead of a presidential ballot where
he will run for reelection in December in 2012.
 His administration is pushing foreign energy company
partners to boost production at joint-venture projects, while
also putting its hopes in ambitious new developments to tap the
country's vast Orinoco extra heavy crude belt. [ID:nN24188338]
 (Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga in Caracas and
Matthew Robinson in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)


UPDATE 6-Venezuela ends independent oil data certification