CARACAS, Venezuela, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said the country's hydrocarbon reserves surpass those of Saudi Arabia but left open the possibility of an early commercial exploitation of the resource.
A spate of nationalizations has turned investor institutions away from Venezuela, the only oil-producing major country to have reported a shrinking economy for the second consecutive year.
Chavez told the newly installed National Assembly Venezuela's oil reserves totaled 217 billion barrels of oil equivalent, exceeding Saudi Arabia's and making them the largest in the world.
"We have exceeded 217 billion barrels but the certification process has not ended," Chavez said during a review of his 2010 accomplishments.
Independent figures for Saudi Arabian reserves put the total at 267 billion barrels of oil equivalent but Chavez didn't explain sources for his Saudi estimates or give details of the verification process for Venezuela's latest finds.
But, he said, Venezuela's total reserves could reach 300 billion barrels of oil equivalent based on new projections. He also cited estimates that they could total 500 billion barrels, with almost all the oil in the Orinoco Belt.
The Orinoco Belt in east-central Venezuela is believed to hold the world's largest petroleum reserves but the deposits mostly consist of heavy and extra heavy crude that is relatively less economically feasible because it costs more to refine and make market-ready.
To support his claim, Chavez cited what he called U.S. government sources.
"We've said that we have 300 billion barrels but the administration of President (Barack) Obama published a report saying that 500 billion barrels could be recovered there. That's probably because they have more technology than we do," Chavez said.
He said Venezuela was set to have petroleum that could last more than 200 years.
"No other country on the planet has reserves for 200 years," Chavez said.
The Venezuelan leader has had frequent confrontations with the country's business and industrial leaders, many of them moved aside in nationalizations. Critics say the state takeovers without viable strategies for new management have left Chavez with dwindling support in the entrepreneurial sector that could support his plans for economic expansion.
In previous measures Chavez laid off thousands of experts and workers from state-run energy industries, causing major disruptions in the infrastructure.
Chavez denied reports from opposition media that Venezuela's production had fallen below 2 million barrels a day.
"We are at 3 million and a little more barrels daily, and we have been increasing production from the Orinoco Belt," Chavez said.
Despite the president's assertion, independent confirmation of Venezuela's oil data has been scarce.
At the December meeting of OPEC leaders in Ecuador, Venezuela campaigned for higher oil prices to finance the oil producers' deficits, arguing the consumer economies could absorb higher fuel prices.
The price of a barrel of oil "will reach $100 and $200 because the reserves are running out," Chavez said.