NICOSIA - Cyprus on Wednesday signed an agreement with French energy major Total S.A. to conduct exploratory drilling for gas and oil in two blocks off its southern shore.
The deal comes as Cyprus aspires to become a regional energy hub with the prospect of oil as well as natural gas being tapped beneath the sea bed.
"With today's act the government has completed one of the most crucial aims in its energy policy, that of successfully conducting a second round of licensing," Commerce Minister Neoclis Sylikiotis told reporters after the signing ceremony.
Total signed a deal to exploit blocks 10 and 11 that are adjacent to a large natural gas find in block 12 and said it seeks to proceed in drilling for oil as well as gas reserves in the said blocks.
Turkey has protested strongly against Nicosia's energy search, branding it illegal and beginning its own exploratory drilling off the breakaway north of the island.
Ankara has warned that companies involved in the Cyprus process could be shut out of Turkey's energy investment.
Mr. Sylikiotis said that having countries such as France, America and Italy involved in the island's hydrocarbon exploration acted as a "political shield" against Turkish threats.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkish troops invaded and occupied its northern third in response to an Athens-engineered coup in Nicosia aimed at union with Greece.
It is estimated that there could be around 60 trillion cubic feet of gas lying in the 13 blocks that make up Cyprus's 51,000 square kilometer exclusive economic zone.
Some analysts believe Cyprus is sitting on potential energy revenues of EUR600 billion.
Cyprus is banking on its energy bonanza to eventually rescue it from recession as it seeks a European Union bailout.
Last month, Cyprus signed licence agreements with Italy's ENI and South Korea's Kogas for exploratory drilling aimed at exploiting offshore oil and gas deposits.
In October, drilling permits subject to negotiation were approved for blocks 2, 3, 9 and 11 of Cyprus's Exclusive Economic Zone, and in December block 10 was added to the list.
An Italian-South Korean partnership signed a deal worth EUR150 million ($200 million) for permits to explore blocks 2, 3 and 9.
U.S. firm Noble Energy Inc. was the first to drill when awarded Block 12, and in December 2011 said it had discovered gas reserves of up to 8 trillion cubic feet (226.5 billion cubic metres), with an estimated value of EUR100 billion.
This would satisfy domestic needs for decades and could enable Cyprus to become a regional player by exporting gas to Europe from 2019.
It plans to bring gas onshore in 2018 and build a liquefied natural gas plant.
In the long term, Cyprus estimates it can supply up to 10% of the EU's energy demand, making the bloc less dependent on Russia.
Copyright (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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