WASHINGTON (AP) _ Venezuela's oil production has been rebounding, but it's still too early to tell when American refineries will once again be able to rely on the South American country as they have in the past.
Venezuela's energy minister, Rafael Ramirez, gave an optimistic forecast during a visit Thursday, predicting that his country would be producing 2.4 million barrels of crude a day by the end of the month, about what the country's production quota is under guidelines laid down by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
But Bush administration officials did not eagerly embrace the upbeat assessment.
On Wednesday, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham told a Senate hearing it might be two to three months before Venezuelan imports get back to normal.
``We appreciated their sharing the information with us,'' Energy Department spokeswoman Jeanne Lopatto said Thursday when asked for comment on Ramirez' forecast.
The loss of Venezuelan oil in December because of the country's political strife has been especially worrisome within a Bush administration preparing for possible war with Iraq.
Energy analysts have questioned whether other producing countries with spare production capacity, mainly Saudi Arabia, could replace both lost Venezuelan and Iraqi oil should war erupt in Iraq and Venezuela's problems not be resolved.
The world's fifth largest oil producer, Venezuela is a major source of oil for the United States, accounting for about 14 percent of U.S. oil imports last year, or about 1.4 million barrels of crude and refined gasoline per day.
In recent months U.S. refiners, purchasing through intermediaries, reportedly have been relying more heavily on Iraqi oil to replace the lost supplies from Venezuela. The two countries produce similar types of oil.
U.S. imports of Iraqi oil doubled to more than 1 million barrels a day in mid-February, The Washington Post reported recently, citing unpublished figures from the United Nations. Working through intermediaries, U.S. companies long have bought Iraqi oil under a U.N. food-for-oil program, but those imports dropped to almost nothing last summer when Iraq for a time tacked on an expensive surcharge.
The political turmoil in Venezuela caught U.S. officials by surprise. Energy analysts have blamed the recent jump in the price of crude, as well as heating oil and gasoline, to the loss of Venezuela's oil and jitters over possible war in Iraq.
Crude prices retreated somewhat Thursday after soaring to the highest level since the Gulf War 12 years ago, closing at $36.35 on the New York Mercantile Exchange spot market.
Analysts speculated that the decline_ nearly $1 from Wednesday's close _ was more the result of profit taking than a signal of a downward trend. The price for crude to be delivered in April increased to just under $40, the highest since October 1990, shortly before the Gulf War.
The attempt by Ramirez, Venezuela's minister in charge of energy and mines, to reassure U.S. officials of his industry's recovery seemed to have little impact on traders, who have been worried more about Middle East supplies if war erupts in Iraq.
Ramirez said Venezuelan oil production, at a standstill in December and January, recovered significantly in February.
He said production rose from 150,000 barrels a day in early January to just over 2 million barrels a day, with 1.5 million barrels a day being exported. He said production is expected to reach 2.9 million barrels a day by the end of March.
He spoke at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington group specializing in Western Hemisphere affairs, and later to reporters.