CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s opposition accused the government on Wednesday of turning a blind eye to neighboring Guyana’s oil exploration in a border region claimed by Venezuela, potentially inflaming a territorial dispute that dates back more than a century.
The conflict was stirred up in recent days by local media reports that Exxon Mobil Corp, in partnership with Royal Dutch Shell, is exploring for crude off the coast of the disputed Essequibo region.
The two South American nations squabbled over the area, which is the size of the U.S. State of Georgia, for much of the 20th century. Venezuela calls it a “reclamation zone,” but in practice it functions as Guyanese territory.
“(We) firmly reject the concessions granted by the Guyana government in Venezuela’s Atlantic waters,” the opposition’s Democratic Unity coalition said in a statement, slamming the government’s stance as “weak.”
“In the face of the activation of the concessions in the area, the government of President Hugo Chavez should address the issue immediately.”
An Exxon spokesman said in an email it and Shell “have had an active exploration license offshore Guyana for several years, and we have obtained multiple seismic data sets in the area.”
Local media reported that Guyana halted exploration of the offshore block called Stabroek in 2000 following a protest by Venezuela. A representative of Venezuela’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The dispute over the region known as the Essequibo resurfaced last year when Guyana asked the United Nations to extend its continental shelf - the area where countries control ocean resources - toward a region where Venezuela has granted natural gas concessions.
The much smaller and poorer Guyana still relies on imports for its energy needs and has invited companies including Spain’s Repsol to drill for oil in other offshore areas not affected by the dispute.
The Essequibo, an area of rolling savanna and isolated jungle, shows little sign of Venezuelan presence. Many Guyanese see it as a crucial to their economic future due to its reserves of minerals including gold, diamonds and bauxite.
Chavez has taken a conciliatory stance in the dispute, striking up a friendship with former Guyanese President Bharrat Jagdeo and selling fuel to Guyana on advantageous terms under the Petrocaribe energy initiative.
Guyana has granted mining concessions for bauxite and gold in the Essequibo, a point of contention for Chavez critics.
“President Chavez’s policies of using Venezuelan oil to buy the will and sovereignty of other countries has failed,” opposition deputy Maria Corina Machado said during Tuesday’s legislative session.
Chavez allies pass off the opposition’s treatment of the issue as little more than manipulative demagoguery meant to stir up partisan politics.
Oil companies have shown growing interest in the northeastern shoulder of South America, with industry experts describing a recent discovery off nearby French Guyana as a game-changer for the region’s energy prospects.
Editing by Daniel Wallis and Cynthia Osterman