Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Tuesday he would authorize oil exploration in an area around the Esequibo river, even though the territory is the subject of dispute with Guyana, APA reports citing Reuters.
Maduro's comments come after his government held a referendum over the weekend where voters rejected the International Court of Justice's (ICJ) jurisdiction over the disagreement and backed creating a new state in the territory.
Though Maduro has repeatedly said the referendum is binding, the ICJ - whose overall ruling on the case could be years away - last week barred Venezuela from taking any action which changes the status quo in the oil-rich region.
State oil company PDVSA and state iron and steel maker CVG will create divisions for the disputed region, Maduro said.
The state companies will "immediately proceed to create the division PDVSA Esequibo and CVG Esequibo and immediately we'll proceed to give operating licenses for the exploration and exploitation of oil, gas and mines in our Guayana Esequiba," he said on state television.
Maduro also said he has proposed a law to the government-controlled legislature to create the new state, and companies already operating in waters in the area would have three months to leave.
Venezuela reactivated its claim over the 160,000 square km (61,776 square mile) territory in recent years, after the discovery of offshore oil and gas. The maritime border between the two countries is also in dispute.
A consortium led by Exxon Mobil (XOM.N) began producing oil off Guyana's coast in late 2019 and exports started in 2020.
Guyana, which is currently producing some 400,000 barrels per day of oil and gas, this year received bids for new shallow water and deep water blocks from local and foreign companies in its first international bidding round. The exploration licenses for those areas have not been signed.
Guyana said on Monday it will remain vigilant because Venezuela's leadership has shown itself to be unpredictable.
Analysts have said the vote was an attempt by Maduro to gauge his government's support ahead of a 2024 presidential election.