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Venezuela Selling U.S. Refineries to Evade| Billion-Dollar Award, Conoco Says

HOUSTON (CN) - Venezuela's national oil company is selling CITGO to move the money back home and prevent ConocoPhillips from collecting an impending billion-dollar arbitration award, ConocoPhillips claims in court.

Houston-based CITGO is owned by Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), Venezuela's national oil company.

CITGO owns refineries in Lake Charles, La.; Corpus Christi, Texas and Lemont, Ill., along with pipelines and terminals in Texas and Louisiana.

The estimated value of its assets is $8.1 billion.

ConocoPhillips Petrozuata, a Dutch subsidiary of Houston-based ConocoPhillips, and its sister company Phillips Petroleum Company Venezuela Limited, filed a petition for pre-suit discovery Monday in Harris County Court.

The filing stems from former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's seizure, or nationalization, of ConocoPhillips' assets in Venezuela's Orinoco Oil Belt.

An arbitration panel of the World Bank's International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) ruled in September 2013 that Venezuela had violated a Netherlands-Venezuela treaty by seizing ConocoPhillips' assets, according to the petition.

ConocoPhillips also took Petróleos de Venezuela to arbitration before the International Chamber of Commerce, seeking indemnity for Venezuela's seizure of its assets.

Although the ICSID panel has yet to put a figure on the damages, ConocoPhillips claims the award will likely exceed $1 billion, citing the $1.6 billion an ICSID arbitration tribunal awarded ExxonMobil in a similar dispute involving Venezuela's seizure of ExxonMobil's assets.

"Venezuela faces more than 20 other arbitration cases regarding nationalizations carried out during the rule of the late President, Hugo Chávez," according to the petition.

Petróleos de Venezuela announced this year that it plans to liquidate its stake in CITGO, which set off alarm bells for ConocoPhillips and its hopes of collecting any arbitration award.

"PDVSA seeks to liquidate and repatriate assets out of the current jurisdictions and to Venezuela or elsewhere to hinder collection on the claims against it because Venezuela will not recognize the arbitration awards or judgments recognizing or confirming them," ConocoPhillips claims in the petition.

In fact, ConocoPhillips says, Chávez admitted as much.

"In a televised speech on Jan. 8, 2012, the late President Hugo Chávez vowed that Venezuela would not recognize arbitration awards of the type pursued by petitioners," the petition states.

"Referring to ICSID, President Chávez said: 'I tell you now, we will not recognize any decision.'

"Chávez further stated, referring to international arbitration claimants, 'They are trying the impossible: To get us to pay them. We are not going to pay them anything.'"

ConocoPhillips claims that to confuse creditors, Petróleos de Venezuela and Venezuelan officials have kept liquidation talks for CITGO under wraps, while publicly announcing that CITGO is no longer on the table.

"In a speech to the United Nations on Sept. 24, 2014, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced that Venezuela would be 'strengthening its investments' in CITGO, intimating that the CITGO assets were no longer for sale," the petition states.

"But privately, PDVSA has apparently continued to pursue the liquidation of CITGO."

CITGO is shopping its assets to energy heavyweights Valero, Chevron, Marathon and Phillips 66, ConocoPhillips claims, citing numerous Reuters articles.

ConocoPhillips seeks to depose CITGO to investigate a possible claim under the Texas Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act.

Specifically, it wants to obtain testimony and documents regarding the status of negotiations for the sale of CITGO, the assets and parties involved and the dollar amount and "disposition of the proceeds" of any proposed deal.

ConocoPhillips is represented by Katherine Hacker with Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott of Denver.

CITGO's public affairs manager was not available to comment Tuesday morning.

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