Exxon halts offshore research on worsening Venezuela-Guyana tensions

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An oil exploration ship contracted by Exxon Mobil Corp. and the government of Guyana was approached Saturday by Venezuela’s navy, rekindling a border dispute between the two nations and pushing the U.S. major to halt research work in one of its most-promising energy prospects.

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Owned by Norway’s Petroleum Geo-Services and bearing a Bahamian flag, the Ramform Tethys seismic-survey vessel was intercepted by a Venezuelan navy ship Saturday morning in Guyanese waters, about 90 miles from a provisional border, Guyanese authorities said.

PGS and Exxon did not give further details of the encounter but said the research ship, which had been acquiring the 3-D seismic data needed for drilling, stopped work and headed east with its 70 crew members. The Venezuelans did not board the ship, according to its operators.

Ten offshore oil discoveries since 2015 by an Exxon-led consortium, accounting for 5 billion barrels of crude, have turned Guyana, one of South America’s poorest nations, into one of the region’s hottest oil frontiers. But the finds have also resurfaced a simmering, century-old border controversy in which Venezuela claims two-thirds of its neighbor’s territory.

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“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejects this illegal, aggressive and hostile act,” Guyana Foreign Minister Carl Greenidge said in a statement, calling Venezuela “the real threat to Guyana’s economic development.”

Exxon said the seismic operations that it was performing under a Guyanese government license have been paused until they can be safely continued. “Our main concern is for the safety of crew members and others in the area,” a spokeswoman for the Irving, Texas company said.

There was no immediate response from Caracas. In the past, President Nicolás Maduro has slammed Exxon’s offshore oil operations in Guyana as a provocation. In recent weeks, the president has made repeated promises to strengthen Venezuela’s military defense as relations fray with the U.S. and Latin American countries that have largely condemned the Maduro administration’s slide into authoritarian rule.

Mr. Greenidge said he would inform the United Nations of a breach on his country’s national sovereignty.