You can't blame ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) for reaching the end of its patience. With Venezuela's Castro-wannabe President Hugo Chavez sending the company and five of its peers packing earlier this year, and with negotiations on compensation having become a dry hole for the company, Exxon will pursue arbitration in the dispute.
The company could be joined by ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP ) , which, like Exxon, has refused to roll over and accept Venezuela's settlement terms. The four companies who capitulated to Chavez include Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) , BP (NYSE: BP ) , France's Total (NYSE: TOT ) , and Norway's Statoil (NYSE: STO ) .
The six companies had been operating various heavy-oil projects in the country's Orinoco River basin. But with Chavez's nationalization program affecting such industries as energy, electricity, steel, and banking, they were expelled last spring in favor of state-run Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA, which assumed command of the operations.
The Orinoco's thick, gooey oil will continue to challenge PDVSA. It's difficult to extract and refine. Being a significant producer of oil on an international scale, and a key supplier to the U.S., Chavez's truculent approach to the industrialized world in general and the U.S. in particular could worsen the world's tight oil supply-demand balance. In fact, the Energy Information Administration arm of the U.S. Department of Energy believes that Venezuelan production already has declined to about 2.4 million barrels per day, down from 3.1 million barrels.
Exxon's petition for arbitration goes to the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), an independent international organization with ties to the World Bank. If the company's efforts -- which should take a few years to run their course -- succeed, but Venezuela disavows compliance, Exxon could pursue its case in the courts of any country that is an ICSID signatory.
Earlier this year, ExxonMobil said it wouldn't enter into any new energy projects in Russia, given that nation's increasingly hardball approach with western companies. Exxon has found dealing with the Russian government challenging at its Sakhalin-1 project, which the company operates. It also has watched the Russian government bounce BP and Royal Dutch Shell from projects at the big Kovykta gas field and Sakhalin-2, respectively.
This governmental heavy-handedness has contributed to draining Exxon's patience. It's also one of the many reasons I continue to pound on my Foolish friends (figuratively, of course) to include the company or other quality international producers in their investment portfolios.
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