Exxon and Chavez, Ready to Rumble

ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) has proven once again that, in the world of energy, bigger is increasingly better. Last week, Exxon won a big victory in the courts in its battle with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. The company was told early last year that its Cerro Negro project in that nation's Orinoco basin was being turned over to PDVSA, Venezuela's national oil company, as part of a nationalization program under Chavez. Exxon's victory, however, has resulted in threats by Chavez to cut off oil shipments to the U.S.

When the expropriation first came down, several other affected companies, including Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) , BP (NYSE: BP  ) , and France's Total (NYSE: TOT  ) , ultimately rolled over and settled with Hugo and his boys. Another, Houston-based ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  ) , is still talking to PDVSA, trying to find an "amicable resolution" to compensation for its efforts.

Exxon, however, adopted a far more combative approach, seeking arbitration in the World Bank-affiliated International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSIT). Last week, Exxon received court orders in Britain, the Netherlands, and the Netherlands Antilles freezing up to $12 billion of PDVSA's assets. That followed a U.S. District Court decision in December freezing in excess of $300 million of PDVSA's assets.

All this hits a PDVSA that is hardly faring well. A slug of its funding is going to Chavez's socialization efforts, and, for a variety of reasons, the nation's daily crude production has dwindled from about 3.1 million barrels a few years ago to a current level closer to 2.4 million barrels. Of course, the Orinoco caper won't help: The area's crude is thick and gooey and, thus, needs technologically sophisticated treatment in both production and refining.

Beyond that, I'm of the opinion that only a sizable company and one willing to stand up for its rights -- like Exxon -- would even have pursued third-party help in its dustup with Chavez. It seems that this very spirit has likely helped the company survive in Russia, where both BP and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A  ) (NYSE: RDS-B  ) have been bounced from operating positions by Vladimir Putin's minions.

Global energy will continue to tilt in the direction of the largest companies, and Fools with a taste for oil would be well-advised to keep a close watch on Exxon, still the king of the beasts.

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