Venezuela Gets OPEC's Ear, Secures Some Support In Exxon Row

Venezuela managed to make its battle with Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) a point of discussion in this week's meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, hoping for support in a commercial dispute that could set a milestone in conflict resolution between oil-rich nations and oil companies.

Several ministers arriving in Vienna expressed support for Venezuela's position and agreed the Andean country's case against Exxon will be heard, though it's unclear what that would mean.

"Venezuela is asking the organization to support (its) position and I think (OPEC) is very sensitive to that because OPEC in the past had discussed conflicts between member countries and companies," said OPEC President Chakib Khelil Monday. "It was accepted that (the row between Exxon and Venezuela) will be discussed at this meeting."

"The charter of OPEC obliges us to discuss this issue if Venezuela puts it for discussion, and I am ready to support the Venezuelans," said Shokri Ghanem, the head of Libya's oil industry. "The least that should come from OPEC is a show of solidarity."

Any OPEC member is free to raise issues for discussion during a meeting and it's far from clear what that might yield or how much real support Venezuela has among its OPEC peers, particularly the largest producers such as Saudi Arabia. Still, President Hugo Chavez is likely to paint the issue as a political victory of sorts for his administration, which has lately tried to paint the U.S. oil company as a corporate evildoer intent on pushing the country into insolvency.

What's more, oil producing nations are keeping a close eye on the proceedings for clues of what could happen in other nationalization cases at a time when conditions of access to oil have become even more stringent.

"OPEC members have a vested interest in not allowing Exxon to succeed in freezing $12 billion in assets to prevent a precedent that could redraw the balance between oil producing countries and companies," said Patrick Esteruelas, an analyst with Eurasia Group in New York. Esteruelas argues, that "the leverage (of oil-rich countries) could diminish as a result" of the case.

The legal spat between the parties came to a head earlier this year after the Irving, Texas oil giant managed to freeze more than $12 billion in assets of state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela to insure future compensation for a nationalized oil project.

Last summer Chavez ordered PdVSA to take majority stakes in four heavy crude upgrading ventures in the oil-rich Orinoco River basin, one of which was controlled by Exxon. Chavez offered foreign companies minority stakes under new contracts, an offer that Exxon and ConocoPhillips (COP) refused. Both companies called for arbitration proceedings, but Exxon took a tougher stance through asset freeze orders.

PdVSA is still fighting the freeze in several court sessions in the U.K., but the matter is far from over.

Venezuela's Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez has argued that allowing a large oil producing company to aggressively freeze state-owned assets could set a "terrible" legal precedent. "We see it as Exxon against all OPEC countries," Ramirez said on his arrival in Vienna Monday. "(Foreign companies) could do the same thing to other member countries," in the future.

Although OPEC's support might add up to a written statement - if that - such an outcome could give Chavez fuel to argue that indeed Exxon is isolated in its aggressive pursuit for hefty compensation.

Exxon originally asked Venezuela for $5 billion in compensation for its assets in Venezuela, namely its stake in the Cerro Negro heavy crude deep-conversion upgrader, equipment that processes the extra-heavy Orinoco oil into lighter crudes, now renamed Petromonagas. That price tag is too high for Ramirez, who has argued that $750 million would be more than fair compensation for those assets, estimated at book value.

Venezuela insists that the issue of compensation is not at stake but rather the amount owed the company.

Venezuela's Ramirez has threatened to counter sue Exxon for damages stemming from the freeze, depending on the results of hearings in London this week that could reaffirm or dismiss a hold on PdVSA assets that extends to the U.S., Europe and the Caribbean.

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