The New York Times
February 08, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela — The oil giant Exxon Mobil has won court orders freezing as much as $12 billion in petroleum assets controlled by Venezuela’s government in an escalation of a dispute over efforts by President Hugo Chávez to assert greater control over the country’s oil industry.
Venezuela’s dollar-denominated bonds suffered their steepest drop in six months on Thursday on concerns that Mr. Chávez’s government could face a protracted legal battle with Exxon, preventing the government from raising cash through the sale of refineries abroad if the economy here slows after years of torrid growth.
Investors are also increasingly concerned about the financial health of the national oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, amid reports that its debt is ballooning as its output declines.
The oil company is the largest single source of revenue for Mr. Chávez’s government, financing an array of social welfare projects and foreign aid to leftist allies.
“This is a big blow against Venezuela,” said Pietro Pitts, an oil analyst who publishes Latin Petroleum, an industry magazine based here. “It could set an important precedent for other multinationals threatened by Venezuela’s government.”
After Mr. Chávez’s move to take control of large oil ventures last year, Exxon dug in for a fight. While Chevron and other companies accepted the terms imposed by Mr. Chávez, Exxon aggressively sought to prevent Venezuela from transferring control of foreign-based oil assets to entities here ahead of arbitration proceedings.
In recent days, Exxon won a court order from the High Court of London prohibiting Petróleos de Venezuela from selling assets worldwide up to a value of $12 billion, Margaret Ross, an Exxon spokeswoman in Houston, said in a statement. Exxon won similar orders in the Netherlands and the Netherlands Antilles for assets worth up to $12 billion.
And in New York, Exxon won an order freezing $300 million of Petróleos de Venezuela’s assets. Despite a deterioration of political relations between Caracas and Washington, Venezuela remains a major trading partner with the United States, ranking as its fourth-largest supplier of imported crude oil.
Venezuela’s government also controls Citgo Petroleum of Houston, which operates refineries in Illinois, Louisiana and Texas.
Mr. Chávez’s government has compensated American companies in previous nationalizations of their assets when it was faced with the possibility of losing control of Citgo and other foreign assets in retaliation.
A spokesman for Petróleos de Venezuela did not return calls seeking comment. The company is expected to appeal the rulings. The dispute may raise borrowing costs for Petróleos de Venezuela, which is being reconfigured by Mr. Chávez to focus on pressing social concerns.