FILE – High school students walk past ExxonMobil flags as they arrive to a job fair at the University of Guyana in Georgetown, Guyana, April 21, 2023. ExxonMobil said on Feb. 7, 2024 that it plans to explore for oil and gas in the Essequibo, a region disputed between Guyana and Venezuela. Guyana awarded the exploration license. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix, File)

GEORGETOWN, Guyana (AP) — ExxonMobil said it plans to explore for oil and gas in a disputed area off South America’s coast where the Venezuelan military had previously expelled two U.S. oil companies. The move could escalate tensions between Venezuela and neighboring Guyana, which awarded the exploration license.

Guyana considers the area part of its Essequibo region, but Venezuela has long claimed it as its own, holding a referendum in December in which voters supported a push to annex it.

Robert Persaud, Guyana’s foreign secretary, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that ExxonMobil has every right to work in that region “because it is within established Guyana waters in a fully demarcated area.”

The oil giant said Tuesday that it expects to drill two exploratory wells north and west of its prolific Stabroek block, where three oil fields are producing close to 650,000 barrels of oil a day.

The president of ExxonMobil Guyana, Alistair Routledge, told reporters that the concessions were granted by Guyana and that the company is committed to its operations despite the country’s ongoing tensions with Venezuela.

“We are not going anywhere,” he said.

Previous attempts to explore for oil and gas in that area have failed. In 2019, ExxonMobil was forced to abandon exploration activities after a Venezuelan military helicopter tried to land on a seismic vessel. And in 2013, officials aboard a Venezuelan gunboat detained the crew of a seismic vessel contracted by a Texas petroleum company for a week before releasing them.

The latest push by ExxonMobil comes as Guyana and Venezuela prepare to meet for a second time to try and diffuse the dispute over the Essequibo region. Following mediation talks in December, both sides agreed not to threaten or use force against each other but failed to reach a resolution.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government is increasing its military aid to Guyana and has promised to help buy new aircraft, helicopters, a fleet of military drones andfor the first time, radar technology.

Essequibo is a mineral-rich territory that accounts for two-thirds of Guyana and lies near big offshore oil deposits. Military confrontation with Venezuela appears unlikely for now, but several countries have echoed Guyana’s concerns over an annexation by its neighbor to the west.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2023. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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