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The Essequibo Equation: Oil, Sovereignty, and the Shadow of Conflict

The Essequibo Equation: Oil, Sovereignty, and the Shadow of Conflict

Apr 6, 2024

Lucas Lixinski Arnhold

Key Takeaways:

  • The dispute over the Essequibo region between Venezuela and Guyana has been ongoing for over 150 years but has largely avoided armed conflict due to diplomatic efforts. However, the discovery of significant oil reserves in 2015 has intensified the dispute, bringing it to a geopolitical forefront.

  • The involvement of Exxon Mobil in oil exploration in the Essequibo region's waters, under Guyanese authorization, has shifted the dynamics of the dispute. 

  • Venezuela's economy, heavily reliant on oil exports, faces challenges from U.S. sanctions and the emerging oil boom in Guyana. The potential loss of market share and influence within OPEC are significant concerns for Venezuela.

  • Venezuela's parliament has taken the provocative step of declaring Essequibo its 24th state, awaiting the Supreme Court's approval, further complicating the dispute.

  • Guyana's rise as a major oil producer threatens to disrupt global oil market dynamics, with potential for increased volatility and impacts on global oil prices and demand.

  • Escalating tensions and the potential for armed conflict have heightened insurance risks and costs, particularly for maritime operations in the region.


The Essequibo region has long been a point of contention between Venezuela and Guyana, spanning over 150 years of disputes, arbitral procedures, treaties, and mediation attempts.  Despite this backdrop, the situation has notably steered clear of armed conflict. This avoidance of military confrontation has paved the way for a period of relative calm in the early 21st century, where concerns over the dispute have somewhat subsided, thanks in part to diplomatic efforts aimed at softening tensions. This semblance of tranquility, however, was not to last.

Oil Discovery and Escalating Tensions

The Essequibo region, currently under Guyana's control, faces sovereignty claims from Venezuela, stemming from colonial-era disputes. Surprisingly, despite historical tensions, the management of the region has remained largely peaceful, even during periods of more authoritarian governance.

The equilibrium was upended in 2015 with the discovery of significant oil reserves within the region's exclusive economic zone in Essequibo's waters, a revelation that drew American companies (Exxon Mobil) into exploration activities authorized by Guyana. This development dramatically shifted the dynamics of the dispute, imbuing it with a heightened geoeconomic significance. 

In response, Venezuela's stance became more pronounced, ranging from disregarding provisional measures from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to internally promoting annexation through popular consultations. The resources’ discovery has escalated tensions to the point where Venezuela has even considered military intervention, thus casting a shadow over the previously achieved diplomatic calm. In 2023, a pro-Venezuelan referendum on Essequibo's status reinforced its claim, accompanied by troop deployments along the region’s border, escalating tensions.

The Venezuelan military deployment, accompanied by actions from other actors such as the US, which began conducting joint military exercises with Guyana's army, has heightened tensions. Diplomatic mediation, led by Brazil, facilitated dialogue between Venezuela and Guyana, resulting in an agreement to resolve tensions through bilateral action. However, as reported by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an ongoing military build-up along the border, revealed by satellite images, raises concerns about the potential for armed conflict despite diplomatic efforts.

Moreover, Venezuela’s parliament approved a new law on March 23 declaring Essequibo as its 24th state, which is now awaiting the Supreme Court's approval.


Foremost, addressing the potential for conflict or instability between Venezuela and Guyana over the Essequibo region hinges significantly on the strategic energy context. 

Venezuela stands as a crucial player in global crude oil markets, boasting the world's largest proven reserves, surpassing countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, its position as a top exporter is hindered by U.S. sanctions and limited industrial capacity for oil processing, resulting in a daily production of approximately 730,000 barrels.

In contrast, Guyana is poised for an imminent "oil boom," with estimated reserves exceeding 11 billion barrels—the highest concentration per capita in the world. The majority of these reserves are situated within the maritime exclusive economic zone linked to the Essequibo region. Already, Exxon Mobil has spearheaded sixty-three drilling operations, propelling the country's daily production to over 600,000 barrels—a remarkable transformation for the small nation. Projections indicate that this figure is set to double by 2027.

Indeed, from an economic standpoint, Venezuelan politicians are deeply concerned about the prospect of losing substantial market share to a country that is exploring a region they claim as their own. This concern extends to companies that have been previously expelled or nationalized within Venezuelan territory.

From a geopolitical perspective, the escalated tensions reveal Venezuela's apprehension about the presence of U.S. companies and military activities in its vicinity. The welcoming stance towards American oil exploration businesses in Guyana raises concerns about the "U.S. defending its economic interests abroad," posing a potential threat to the Venezuelan regime. In this context, the resecuritization of the contentious issue surrounding Essequibo represents an attempt to compel Guyana to negotiate bilaterally, thereby enhancing Venezuela’s control over its surrounding territory and its capacity to limit American presence nearby.

Lastly, a brief analysis of domestic politics in Venezuela may also link the Essequibo region dispute to the upcoming Venezuelan election. Despite Nicolas Maduro concentrating large amounts of institutional power in Venezuela, recent negotiations to reduce the extension of US sanctions over Venezuela’s oil were based on granting more freedom for the country's elections. 

Although a recent Supreme Court decision impedes the participation of significant opposition candidates, the Essequibo Question might have been employed as a tactic to rally popular support through a "point to the external enemies" strategy.


The ongoing dispute over the Essequibo region between Venezuela and Guyana carries significant implications across various sectors, particularly in the global oil market and insurance prices for transportation and infrastructure projects. The potential for military escalation further heightens the impact of this contentious issue.

  • Impact on the Global Oil Market: The discovery of significant oil reserves in the Essequibo region, coupled with Guyana's decision to authorize exploration activities by American entities such as Exxon Mobil, threatens to alter the balance within the global oil market.

    • As Guyana, not a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), edges towards becoming a significant oil producer—with projections indicating a doubling of its production by 2027—shifts in global oil prices and market dynamics are expected. 

    • Meanwhile, Venezuela's dependence on oil exports and its concerns over losing market share to an emerging Guyana, as well as its desire to maintain influence within OPEC, could lead to increased market volatility. 

    • The prospect of a military conflict over the Essequibo could further destabilize the situation, risking temporary disruption of oil supplies from both nations, with global repercussions for oil prices and demand.

  • Insurance Market Ramifications: The escalation of tensions and the potential for armed conflict carry significant implications for insurance costs, particularly in maritime risk coverage.


    • The heightened risk has already prompted insurance markets, including Lloyd’s of London, to reevaluate the risk levels associated with Guyana's offshore oil fields.

    • The involvement of US companies, coupled with the risk of mutual detention of commercial vessels and oil exploration ships by Venezuelan and Guyanese forces, stands to further increase insurance premiums and risk assessments. 

    • This could impose additional costs and challenges for companies engaged in regional transportation and infrastructure projects, directly impacting their operational risk management strategies.

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