Venezuela is hosting a three-day gathering of public- and private-sector representatives aimed at promoting opportunities in the country's oil and natural gas sector.

Companies taking part in the inaugural Integral Congress on Hydrocarbons, which kicked off Tuesday in the eastern town of Lecheria, will use the forum to seek partners for energy projects, the president of the country's Petroleum Chamber, Mauricio Canard, told Efe.

He noted that state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela SA has already formed more than 40 joint ventures with international and domestic energy companies.

"It's a message we're also sending the world that Petroleos de Venezuela, working alongside private Venezuelan and international business leaders, is going to undertake all these projects," Canard said.

He said in opening the gathering that Venezuela is now focused on spurring the country's development by exploiting its proven oil reserves in the Orinoco Belt, as well as its associated and non-associated gas reserves estimated at 195 trillion cubic feet.

Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez, for his part, said the massive Orinoco Belt in northeastern Venezuela holds some 296.5 billion barrels of crude.

He also stressed in a press conference that Venezuela will not pay any "penalty they may want to impose on PDVSA for fully exercising its national sovereignty," alluding to the country's move in 2007 to force foreign companies to accept minority partnerships in joint ventures with the state oil firm.

"We offered each company a fair amount for the settlement, as we did with the cement, steel ... companies. Now ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips want to punish a sovereign people and we simply won't allow it," the minister said.

Ramirez, who is also president of PDVSA, said in July that Venezuela will pay ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips for assets expropriated in 2007 but only if a "reasonable amount" is agreed between the parties or determined by the World Bank's International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes.

Companies from China, the United States, Vietnam, Colombia, Ecuador and Saudi Arabia and other countries are taking part in the conference.

Participants will discuss in detail items such as oil and gas exploration and production projects, opportunities in the Orinoco Belt, financing options, joint ventures and PDVSA subsidiaries and their new businesses, according to the official program.

Chevron's president for Latin America and Africa, Ali Moshiri, and the executive director of Technip Italy S.p.A., Marco Villa, also are scheduled to address participants at the gathering.

Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, Moshiri hailed Venezuela's bountiful natural resources.

"Venezuela is unique in terms of its resources," he said, adding that Chevron holds minority stakes in two joint ventures with PDVSA and plans to develop 10 projects in the country.

Separately, the Venezuelan legislature on Tuesday approved a new joint venture between an PDVSA subsidiary and Odebrecht E&P España that will conduct operations in western Venezuela.

Venezuela, which produces 2.97 million barrels per day and exports 2.5 million bpd, has the planet's largest proven oil reserves and is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter.