Gold Reserve Inc., the Spokane-based mine-exploration company, is awaiting a decision with huge implications for its future, and it could be a lengthy wait.
A three-person tribunal held arbitration hearings last month concerning Gold Reserve's $2.1 billion claim against the Venezuelan government, which seized its Brisas project in that South American country 2 1/2 years ago.
Both parties have until March 16 to file post-hearing briefs presenting final comments, with a decision to follow, but it's common for a tribunal in this type of arbitration to require six to 18 months to issue its ruling, Gold Reserve says.
Gold Reserve's primary business for more than 16 years was development of the Brisas gold and copper project in Venezuela, and it doesn't have any other active exploration projects. That raises questions about how the company would proceed if it doesn't win a substantial settlement.
The hearings were held at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., Feb. 6-17 before the tribunal under the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes. Gold Reserve's president, Doug Belanger, couldn't be reached for comment, but he says in a press release that the company's experts and employees supported Gold Reserve's claims well.
"The oral hearings were the culmination of an extensive undertaking by the company's counsel, technical, legal, and financial experts, as well as its employees, to present Gold Reserve's case to the tribunal," Belanger says in the release. "Upon review of the entire record of evidence, it is clear that Gold Reserve's claims are well supported."
However, a far larger companyExxon Mobilthree months ago was awarded a $908 million fraction of its $7 billion claim against the Venezuela government in another such case. That case, though, was heard by a different international arbitration panel, the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris. It reportedly involved a dispute over Venezuela's nationalization of an Exxon heavy crude upgrading project in Venezula's Orinoco belt.
Major news outlets, including the New York Times and the BBC, reported in early January that the Exxon decision was among disputes from more than a dozen foreign companies against Venezuela over nationalization of assets in recent years under President Hugo Chavez. Most cases, including a separate one in which Exxon is seeking up to $12 billion in compensation over its Cerro Negro oil project, are pending before the same World Bank's International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes that has jurisdiction in the Gold Reserve case, the news reports said.
The news outlets also reported, though, that Chavez vowed not to recognize any ruling regarding Exxon's $12 billion claim by that center's panel. While Gold Reserve's hearings continued unimpeded, Venezuela also said in January it plans to leave the World Bank's arbitration body and try to settle remaining disputes with foreign countries within its own judicial system, the reports said. Such action isn't expected to affect litigation of cases currently pending.
Gold Reserve says it is seeking restitution, or fair market value, for the rights to develop the Brisas project and another Venezuela mining project site it planned to develop, called Choco 5. Venezuela reversed regulatory approval of Gold Reserve's Brisas project in fall of 2009 and seized the asset, after the Spokane company had invested nearly $300 million in that property. The company ceased exploration at Choco 5 after Venezuela seized Brisas.
At Brisas, Gold Reserve has envisioned open-pit gold and copper mine that could have cost about $731 million to get up and running. Once the mine was operational, the company estimated it would be productive for 18 years.
The company's most recent operating plan for Brisas listed the proven and probable reserves of about 10.2 million troy ounces of gold and 1.4 billion pounds of copper. Annual production was projected to be 457,000 ounces of gold and 63 million pounds of copper.
In its arbitration claim, Gold Reserve seeks compensation for the losses in Venezuela it says are in violation of the Canada-Venezuela Bilateral Investment Treaty. Gold Reserve is incorporated in Canada but has its executive offices in downtown Spokane.
As it prepared for the arbitration oral hearings this year, Gold Reserve has faced other challenges.
In December, the Toronto Stock Exchange delisted Gold Reserve's stock. Subsequently, the company announced that effective Feb. 1, trading of its common stock in Canada would move from the Toronto Stock Exchange to a second-tier listing on the TSX Venture Exchange, a stock exchange in Canada that is a public venture capital marketplace for emerging companies.
The Toronto Stock Exchange decision came just weeks after Gold Reserve got a delisting reprieve from the NYSE Amex LLC stock exchange. Both stemmed from concerns over Gold Reserve's ongoing dispute with the Venezuelan government, and that the company has substantially discontinued the business that it conducted at the time it was listed.
In the NYSE Amex case, however, the stock exchange accepted Gold Reserve's plan to regain compliance with the exchange's listing service, according to a shareholder update that the company released on Oct. 31. That plan requires Gold Reserve to obtain a working interest in at least one mineral-exploration property by Dec. 20, 2012.
The deadline for mine-exploration property acquisition is 18 months from the date that the stock exchange first notified Gold Reserve that it wasn't compliant with the exchange's standards.
In a separate development earlier last year, Bellevue-based Steelhead Partners LLC and related concerns bought $26.6 million worth of stock in Gold Reserve Inc., according to documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The investment represented about 11.7 million shares, or about 20 percent of Gold Reserve's common stock.
For the third quarter of last year, the most recent publicly filed financial report for the company, Gold Reserve reported a net loss of $5.1 million, or nine cents a diluted share, compared with a net loss of $6.6 million, or 11 cents a share, in the year-earlier period.
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