GEORGETOWN, Guyana (AP) — Guyana’s foreign ministry has condemned what it says was a dangerous incursion into local waters after a Norwegian ship hired by ExxonMobil was “intercepted” by a Venezuelan naval vessel.
The ship, Ramform Tethys, was contracted to conduct seismic work by the company in a block off Guyana’s coast.
It was approached Saturday morning by the Venezuelan navy, which did not board the ship and later left the area, according to Norway’s Petroleum Geo-Services, which was performing the seismic survey on behalf of Irving, Texas-based ExxonMobil.
In a statement Saturday night, the foreign ministry called the incident an “illegal, aggressive and hostile act” by Venezuela “which once again demonstrates the real threat to Guyana’s economic development by its western neighbor.”
It said that it would be bringing “this latest act of illegality and blatant disrespect for Guyana’s sovereignty” to the attention of the United Nations and sending formal communication to Venezuela.
It also said it was in the process of informing the countries that the ship’s 70 crew members hail from about “the threat to their safety.”
A spokeswoman for ExxonMobil said Sunday that seismic operations on the Stabroek block were still paused.
U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Palladino said on Twitter that officials were monitoring reports that the Venezuelan navy may have interfered with the ship.
“We underscore that Guyana has the sovereign right to explore and exploit resources in its territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone,” he wrote.
Exxon drilled its first successful well off the coast of Guyana in 2015 and since then has made nine more discoveries, including one this month that boosted to 5 billion oil-equivalent barrels the company’s estimate of reserves in the deep-water area.
The recent discoveries mean the tiny country of 750,000 people is on track to surpass Venezuela and Mexico to become Latin America’s second-biggest oil producer within the next decade, behind only Brazil, energy research firm Wood MacKenzie wrote in a report this month.
But Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has called the oil drilling by the U.S. company illegal, and many fear that as his socialist-run country teeters on the edge of chaos he could seek to provoke his neighbor.
Venezuela has claimed the mineral-rich region west of the Essequibo river in Guyana as its own since the 19th century, a view shared even by some of Maduro’s fiercest opponents. An international tribunal ruled in 1899 that the area formed part of Guyana, which at the time was a British colony. The swath of disputed land makes up 40 percent of Guyana.
Earlier this year, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres sent the case to the International Court of Justice following a failed UN-sponsored attempt to broker a settlement.
Venezuela’s navy seized a U.S.-chartered oil research ship working in the area in 2013 and held it for more than a week before releasing the vessel and its 36 crew members from the U.S., Russia, Indonesia and Ukraine.