Venezuela: ExxonMobil's attack defeated in London court, oil giant forced to pay legal fees

British Judge Paul Walker declared in a London courtroom today that the freezing of US$12 billion in assets of the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA shall be revoked.

The decision is a major defeat for the world's largest oil company, ExxonMobil, which had won the temporary asset freeze on February 7th in a dispute with PDVSA over the nationalisation of Exxon's stake in a Venezuelan Orinoco River Belt project, known as Cerro Negro.

"We can say that we have won another battle, another victory for our people, for our government, and the most important is that it is another victory for our country", declared Venezuelan energy minister Rafael Ramirez regarding the decision.

The Venezuelan ambassador in London, Samuel Moncada, called the decision "the beginning of the end of ExxonMobil's harassment of Venezuela". Moncada also said his country is "pleased" that the British court "refused to be utilised as an instrument of Exxon to impose itself in the international scene against Venezuela".

"The important thing for our country is that the campaign, the assault of lies and chaos [with which] they tried to install anxiety in our country and they tried to say that our national industry was broken, this was all discounted, because it was all a lie … it was part of, once again, this manipulation that they have forged against our people", Ramirez said in an interview with the Venezuelan government television station VTV.

ExxonMobil's lawyer Catherine Otton-Goulder, declined to comment on the decision.

Judge Walker, who postponed the decision twice since the week-long case began February 28, will give a full explanation of his decision in coming days.

PDVSA had argued that the London court does not have legal jurisdiction over the assets of a nationally owned foreign company that does not operate in Britain. ExxonMobil argued the contrary, and had already won a court order in New York freezing $315 million in PDVSA assets in February.

As a result of the case, Exxon is required to pay for PDVSA's legal fees, which it says amounted to about $766,000. Also, PDVSA will pursue compensation for other damages, such as the devaluation of its bonds, increases in borrowing costs, and its inability to invest in refineries during the freeze, according to PDVSA lawyer George Pollack.

Meanwhile, PDVSA will regain full control over its assets in Britain, but the asset freezes ExxonMobil obtained in the Dutch Antilles, Holland, and New York will remain for now.

"I think all Venezuelans can feel proud", proclaimed Ramirez, vowing that the government will continue defending the "principles and sovereignty" of the nation against foreign aggression.

He also assured that PDVSA would do all it can to clean up the image of Venezuela in the wake of Exxon's actions. Ramírez had called Exxon's efforts "judicial terrorism" in February because they went outside of the arbitration underway in the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) and sought to damage PDVSA's reputation and credibility even though Exxon was offered indemnity.

"We have defeated ExxonMobil", Ramirez elatedly announced, adding that "the decision is 100% in favor of Venezuela, the allegations of Exxon were discounted", but said he would wait until the judge fully explains his decision before making any further comments, according to ABN news reports.

Now, ExxonMobil and PDVSA will return to the process of ICSID arbitration where they had left off, Ramirez explained.

Following the nationalisation of the Orinoco River Belt oil reserves in May 2007, the Venezuelan government required that the state hold at least a 60% stake in oil projects. It nationalised the stakes of several companies, including the Italian ENI, with which it reached an agreement for $700 million in compensation last month.

Exxon, however, rejected Venezuela's compensation offer of $750 million for a 41.6% stake in the "Cerro Negro" project. The offer was based on the value of ExxonMobil's stake according to PDVSA records at the time of nationalisation, PDVSA claimed, but ExxonMobil sought projected profits from the project and demanded arbitration.

The maximum indemnity Exxon had attempted to negotiate was $5 billion before pursuing the $12 billion asset freeze, according to an announcement by Ramirez to the Venezuelan National Assembly in February. The disparity in compensation claims prompted accusations that ExxonMobil's efforts were part of an "economic war" against Venezuela.

Since the nationalisations, state participation in the Orinoco River Belt has increased from 39% to 78%, and Venezuela remains Latin America's largest producer of crude, with nearly half of its oil exported to the United States.

There is no sign that Venezuela's termination of its business relationship with ExxonMobil on February 12 will be reversed, although PDVSA will honour its contract with the Chalmette refinery it co-owns with ExxonMobil.

PDVSA and Mobil became business partners in 1997, before Mobil was acquired by Exxon. During this time period of the 1990s, known as the "Petroleum Opening" era, the 1976 nationalisation of Venezuelan oil was gradually weakened and PDVSA was granted autonomy, converting the company into what Ramirez called a "Trojan Horse" for international capital.

In contrast, the administration of President Hugo Chavez has promoted what it calls "petroleum sovereignty". In addition to nationalising foreign controlled oil production projects, this policy has included channeling over $30 billion of PDVSA's oil profits into Venezuela's National Development Fund (FONDEN) between 2004 and 2007. The funds were invested in infrastructure projects, expansion of the Barrio Adentro health care system, environmental cleanup, and education, among other programs.

[Reprinted from]