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“That gas generated a cloud that later exploded and has caused fires in at least two tanks of the refinery and surrounding areas,” Ramirez said.

Images shortly after the explosion showed the flames casting an orange glow against the night sky, and injured survivors on a stretcher and in a wheelchair. The bloodied bodies of victims were loaded onto pickup trucks.

Ramirez said a panel of investigators was being formed to determine the cause of the gas leak. A prosecutor was appointed to lead the investigation and troops were deployed to the area.

While the cause of the disaster remains unclear, some oil workers and critics of Chavez’s government have recently pointed to increasing numbers of smaller accidents and spills as an indication of problems within the state-run company.

“We warned that something was going to happen, a catastrophic event,” said Ivan Freites, secretary general of a 1,200-member union of oil and natural gas industry workers in Falcon state where the refinery is located. He spoke in a telephone interview from an area near the refinery, where he could see the flames raging in the distance.

The refinery complex’s general manager, Jesus Luongo, denied that a lack of maintenance was to blame, saying in the past three years more than $6 billion has been invested in maintaining the country’s refineries.

Ramirez said the explosion hit an area of storage tanks, damaging nine tanks.

“All of the events happened very quickly,” Ramirez said. “When we got here in the middle of the night, at 3 or 3:30 in the morning, the fire was at its peak.”

The oil minister said that supplies of fuel had been cut off to part of the refinery and that firefighters were using foam to extinguish the flames in one of the remaining tanks.

“This regrettable and sad event is controlled, is under control,” Ramirez said on television, while plumes of smoke continued to billow.

Amuay is part of the Paraguana Refinery Complex, which also includes the adjacent Cardon refinery. Together, the two refineries process about 900,000 barrels of crude per day and 200,000 barrels of gasoline. Venezuela is a major supplier of oil to the U.S. and a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Ramirez said the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA should be able to “restart operations in a maximum of two days.”

“We want to tell the country that we have sufficient inventories of fuel. We have 10 days of inventory of fuel,” Ramirez said. He said the country’s other refineries were operating at full capacity and would be able to “deal with any situation in our domestic market.”

An official of the state oil company, known as PDVSA, said the country also has enough supplies on hand to guarantee its international supply commitments. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

In terms of international oil markets, the disaster is not likely to cause much of a ripple, said Jason Schenker, an energy analyst and president of Austin, Texas-based Prestige Economics LLC. Noting that other refinery accidents and shutdowns regularly occur around the world, he said: “There’s likely to be relatively limited impact on global crude or product pricing.”

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