- Among those asked to surrender their passports is an American
- "We will defend the company," a Chevron spokesman says
- The spill occurred in November off the coast of Rio de Janeiro
- A thin sheen is spotted in the area
A federal court in Brazil has issued an order barring 17 executives from U.S. oil giant Chevron and Transocean Ltd. from leaving the country while it mulls criminal charges against them for an oil spill last year.
Among the 17 who were ordered Saturday by a federal judge in Rio de Janeiro to give up their passports is an American: George Buck, the chief operating officer of Chevron's Brazil division.
Kurt Glaubitz, a Chevron spokeman, said the company has not received a formal notification of the order.
"Any legal decision will be abided by the company and its employees," he said. "We will defend the company and its employees."
The oil spill occurred in deep water off the coast of Rio de Janeiro in November.
The next month, Brazilian federal prosecutors filed a suit against Chevron and oil rig operator Transocean for 20 billion reais, about $11 billion.
The civil suit also seeks to halt the operations in Brazil of the oil giant and its rig operator, according to federal prosecutors in the state of Rio de Janeiro.
"Chevron and Transocean were not able to control the damages caused by the spilling of almost 3,000 barrels of oil, which shows a lack of environmental planning and management by the companies," the prosecutors office said in a statement at the time.
The damages would be by far the largest sought so far by Brazilian officials for the November leak. However, experts on the Brazilian legal system are saying the suit is not likely to be won.
The spill was tiny when compared to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 when some 4 million barrels of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico off the U.S. coast. However, it drew attention to environmental risks as Brazil develops its so-called "subsalt region" in extreme depths off the coast of Rio.
It also heightened tensions with Chevron and other foreign companies operating in the country's oil sector.
On Friday, the Brazilian navy and Chevron officials spotted a thin sheen of oil in the same area where the spill occurred. The sheen extended about 1 kilometers (0.6 mile), Chevron said.
As a result, Chevron suspended production at the Frade offshore field -- about 60,000 barrels a day -- and was using special containment devices to capture the seep.
The company was studying the new seep and trying to determine the geological features in the area that would have caused it, Glaubitz said.
"Once we determine that, we will re-start production," he said.
Brazil aims to be the world's fifth-largest oil producer by 2020.
"By some estimates, the oil you recently discovered off the shores of Brazil could amount to twice the reserves we have in the United States," U.S. President Barack Obama said during a trip to Brasilia in March 2011.
Saying that the United States wants to help Brazil with technology and support to develop such oil reserves, Obama added America "could not be happier with the potential for a new, stable source of energy."
"And when you're ready to start selling, we want to be one of your best customers," he said.