Exxon explorer intercepted by Venezuela

The Venezuelan navy intercepted a ship in Guyanese waters over the weekend of December 22nd and 23rd. The vessel was exploring for oil on behalf of Exxon Mobil Corp, Guyana’s foreign ministry said. Venezuela said the incident occurred within its own territory.

The incident reflects a 100-years-old border dispute between the two countries, but  a series of offshore oil discoveries have resuscitated the previously quiescent dispute. The oil could make Guyana one of Latin America’s largest producers. Venezuela’s crude oil output has collapsed to the lowest levels in nearly 70 years as the country suffers from political and economic difficulties.

The Ramform Tethys vessel, which belongs to Norwegian company Petroleum Geo-Services (PGS), was conducting seismic survey work on behalf of Exxon. It stopped exploration and turned east after being approached by the Venezuelan navy, PGS spokesman Bard Stenberg said.

Guyana’s foreign ministry said on December 22nd that “Guyana rejects this illegal, aggressive and hostile act”. It said that the move demonstrated a “real threat to Guyana’s economic development by its western neighbour”.

The ministry added that it would report the incident to the UN and send a formal communication to Venezuela’s government. It said it would inform the governments of the various homelands of the 70 crew members aboard the vessel, flagged by the Bahamas, of the “threat to their safety.”

Exxon said that its seismic explorations in the western portion of Guyana’s Stabroek Block had now paused until they could be resumed safely, adding that the vessel was operating in Guyana’s exclusive economic zone.

Venezuela’s foreign ministry said on December 23rd that its navy had encountered two boats hired by Exxon in an area that was “undoubtedly Venezuelan sovereignty” and that the vessels, which Venezuela claimed were undertaking a routine patrol, “proceeded to apply the appropriate international protocols.”

The Venezuelan ministry said that the boats’ captains told the navy they had permission from Guyana’s government to explore in the area, and that the boats turned around after being told Guyana did not have jurisdiction in that area. It also said it informed the UN and sent a protest note to Guyana’s government.

The Essequibo region is a sparsely populated and dense jungle area equivalent to around two-thirds of Guyanese territory that Venezuela also claims. Guyana says Caracas agreed to relinquish the area after a ruling by an international tribunal in 1899, but Venezuela later rescinded its decision. The UN referred the dispute to the International Court of Justice in 2018. That move was welcomed by Guyana, but not by Venezuela.

The dispute has returned to the fore up in recent years after Exxon announced the discovery of more than 5bn barrels of oil off the shore of Guyana, which has no history of oil production.