The South American nation of Suriname plans to hold its first ever bidding round for seven oil exploration licenses this year, authorities said yesterday. State oil company Staatsolie has already signed an agreement with Western Geco, a joint venture between Schlumberger Ltd and Baker Hughes Inc, to acquire 2D seismic data in near-shore Suriname to help potential bidders assess the blocks on offer.

Staatsolie plans to offer six near-shore and one onshore licenses in November this year, and they will remain open until May 2002, Exploration and Production Contracts Administrator Marny Daal-Vogelland told Reuters in an interview. "The survey started on January 12 and the past 40 days Western Geco sailed up and down in our offshore area, obtaining additional seismic data," she said. Western Geco will process the data and, on behalf of Staatsolie, market them to
potential bidders.

The new data will add to existing geological and geophysical information on offshore Suriname, Daal says, where a total of 21 wells have been drilled since 1964. "We know already there are oil and gas reserves, (but) we now have to prove these accumulations are commercially recoverable," she said.

Suriname's only current production comes from the on-shore Tambaredjo field, which pumps 12,500 barrels a day. The former Dutch colony is located on the northeast shoulder of South America, between Venezuela and Brazil. A consortium of Burlington Resources Inc, Shell Exploration and Production, TotalFinaElf and Korea National Oil Corp signed a production sharing agreement for a huge swathe of offshore, deep-water acreage in August 1999.

In March 2000, Suriname signed another similar contract with Koch Exploration Canada Ltd, a subsidiary of U.S. based Koch Industries, for exploration onshore. Suriname has a further 22 blocks available for exploration licenses, between 1,300 and 2,500 square kilometres each, but has decided to offer them in several phases over the next five years.

"However, we do not exclude direct negotiations on other open areas with interested oil companies," Daal said. "We do not underestimate the competition and will work very hard to convince the world of the advantages of oil investments in Suriname," she added.