Venezuela to push aside early-days camp towns in quest for new oil

If there is oil under the town, then move the town. That is what Venezuela is about to do to a string of petroleum camp towns on the eastern shore of Lake Maracaibo. The bulk of Venezuela's petroleum industry is on this lake, in the western part of the country.

Most of the towns were set up in the 1920s and '30s. Today they are little more than haphazard combinations of makeshift wooden shacks and brick box-houses in which basic amenities are scarce. They have a Wild West look to them, with almost no greenery.

The towns were first settled during the infancy of Venezuela's oil industry, when foreign companies were carving out their concessions around Lake Maracaibo at a time when most people felt the oil wells would go on gushing forever.

But over the years, as Venezuela's proven reserves began to be used up, with some of the oil wells at Lake Maracaibo actually drying up, the search was on for more oil. After nationalization of the petroleum industry in 1976, the search was intensified. Since then, there have been a number of finds.

It soon became evident that some of the most promising new fields were under the camp towns on the eastern shore of Lake Maracaibo. The towns were originally set up by Exxon, Gulf and Shell.

Just how much oil lies beneath these shoreline towns is not clear, but Petroleos de Venezuela (Petroven), the state oil enterprise, suggests it is probably more than 8 billion barrels -- a tally that would push Venezuela's dwindling known petroleum reserve to nearly 30 billion barrels.

Moreover, the oil is of good quality -- better then the heavy crude requiring special refining techniques that Venezuela now pumps.

With the country struggling to maintain oil production at about 2 million barrels daily in a lagging market for heavy crude, the new finds of lighter crude should be a boon.

But the task of closing down these towns along the shores of Lake Maracaibo to make way for the oil rigs will be not be easy.

The towns are home to nearly 100,000 Venezuelans, many of whom grew up there. Young men often followed their fathers into the oil business, remaining in the very towns in which they were raised. Moving residents to a new city will not be easy, admits Antonio Casa Gonzalez, a director of Petroven, who heads the project to "reorder" Lake Maracaibo's east coast; "but it can be done."

Plans for the project are already on the drafting board. The first step is creation of an entirely new town, a model city, known as El Menito, costing some from the present towns, El Menito will be built on land that has long been worked first by the foreign oil companies and then the state-owned oil firm.

Mr. Casas Gonzalez is enthusiastic about the concept. The present towns, he says, are for the most part poor in comparison with oil towns in other parts of Venezuela.

Sporting such names as Tia Juana, Lagunillas, Mene Grande, Bachaquero, they are little more than jerry-built urban sprawls. They have inadequate schools and poor public transportation. They are, of course, in the center of other oil fields both on land and in the lake, and pollution is widespread. The skies are often dark with the flaring of gas and other hydrocarbons.

The old towns have a flavorful history. They were once rough-and-ready places where life was turbulent and primitive. In those days, few of the men who working the oil rigs brought families. That has changed over the years, and children now abound.

In the earlier ear, many townsfolk were foreigners. Bachaquero got its name -- a spanishized version of "bachelor" -- because many foreign bachelors occupied its barrackslike buildings in the 1920s.

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