CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- French oil major Total SA said Friday that it has agreed to pay a portion of a $1 billion back-tax bill to Venezuela but said it was paying the claim ''with protest.''
Total and its Norwegian partner Statoil ASA received a letter from Venezuelan authorities in August seeking what were called unpaid royalties on their Sincor I operation -- a major heavy crude project in Venezuela's eastern Orinoco tar belt.
The claim said the companies owed $1 billion based upon a 30 percent royalty tax rate, rather than the standard 16.6 percent rate on volumes of synthetic crude exceeding 114,000 barrels a day.
A spokeswoman for Total in France said the two companies have agreed to pay the increased royalty rate for the recently ended third quarter from July through September.
Total will make an extra payment amounting to $20 million (16.7 million euros), she told Dow Jones Newswires on condition of anonymity.
A Statoil spokeswoman in Caracas declined to say how much the Norwegian company had agreed to pay citing confidentiality agreements in the contract.
Total Chief Financial Officer Robert Castaigne said in Paris that the French oil company hasn't changed its view that the back-tax claim was groundless and was making the payment ''with protest.''
Total holds a 47 percent stake in the Sincor I project, Statoil holds 15 percent, while state-run Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. holds the remainder.
The payment comes as the Venezuelan government seeks to collect a greater share of revenues amid high oil prices. The country, sitting on the largest conventional oil reserves outside the Middle East, has taken advantage of increasing leverage to take tougher line with oil firms.
Separately, Venezuela's tax agency has similarly hiked taxes on companies operating oil fields under contract in Venezuela. It claims that the contracts awarded in the 1990s illegally set tax rates too low and has retroactively applied a new rate back to 2001.
The agency has said it intends to collect as much as $3 billion from the 22 private firms that hold 32 oil pumping agreements in Venezuela. Total and Statoil are among those firms.
The agency has already sent claims totaling $240 million to Italian oil company ENI SpA, Royal Dutch Shell PLC, and the U.S. firm Harvest Natural Resources Inc. All three have contested the bills, though Harvest has paid a part of the amount owed.
Tax agency chief Jose Vielma Mora said Friday that the agency, in an effort to collect on its claims, may temporarily shut the administrative office of two international oil firms next week. He refused to specify which firms.
Earlier this year, the agency shut Shell's administrative offices for two days for not complying with the tax probe and ordered a court injunction on $130 million in assets as collateral for taxes it says the firm owes. The agency has also raided the offices of Chevron Corp. to seize tax-related documents.