An offshore oil exploration concession granted by Guyana's government to Exxon Mobil Corp. is stirring controversy in neighboring Venezuela.
Guyana's government reacted with surprise on Thursday after Venezuela's opposition coalition condemned such oil concessions and demanded a response by President Hugo Chavez's government.
Natural Resources Minister Robert Persaud said Guyana officials believe the Venezuelan opposition's stance is largely political posturing ahead of the neighboring country's October presidential election. "There is not a single rig or piece of equipment in the concession now," Persaud said.
Venezuela and Guyana have a longstanding territorial dispute over the mineral-rich Essequibo region, as well as offshore areas where there are thought to be deposits of oil and natural gas. Officials in Guyana say that Exxon Mobil has a 17 million acre (6.9 million hectare) concession where it's conducting seismic work.
Venezuela's opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Table, expressed concern in a statement on Wednesday, rejecting "all the concessions granted by the government of Guyana in areas corresponding to the Atlantic coast of Venezuela." In particular, it mentioned oil exploration work by Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell PLC in the area.
"President Hugo Chavez's government should state its position," the opposition said in the statement, which came after a report in a Venezuelan newspaper that oil exploration work had been reactivated in an offshore area known as the Stabroek block.
Venezuela's Foreign Ministry did not immediately comment on the matter.
"ExxonMobil and Shell have had an active exploration license offshore Guyana for several years," Exxon Mobil spokesman Patrick McGinn said in an emailed statement. "Exploration is a process that takes many years and has multiple phases. Currently, we are evaluating next steps in the Stabroek Block's exploration."
Other companies exploring for oil off Guyana's coast include Spain's Repsol, Britain-based Tullow Oil and CGX Energy Inc. of Canada.
Last year, Venezuela's government expressed concerns after Guyana filed a claim with the United Nations for a larger share of the continental shelf to take in offshore areas thought to hold oil and natural gas deposits.
Venezuela has maintained a longstanding claim to the vast Essequibo region, which is rich in gold, bauxite and other minerals. Venezuela argues that it was cheated out of the area when the border was drawn in 1899. In recent years, though, Venezuela and Guyana have maintained cordial relations despite the dispute.