CAPE TOWN, Nov 4 (Reuters) - French energy major Total has halted oil exploration off the southern coast of Africa due to mechanical problems with a rig, meaning it will not be able to resume searching in the area before 2016, a company official said on Tuesday.
The news is a huge setback to South Africa's plans to have 30 exploration wells drilled in the next 10 years as the continent's most advanced economy strives to reduce its heavy reliance on imported oil.
"Offshore repair was not possible," Guy Maurice, the company's senior vice-president for exploration and production in Africa, told delegates at an Africa oil and gas conference organised by Global Pacific & Partners.
He later told Reuters that it would not be possible to resume drilling before 2016.
Total is the operator of Block 11B/12B, where it holds a 50 percent stake in the field with equal partner CNR International, a subsidiary of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.
It started drilling earlier this year in the Outeniqua Basin, about 175 km (110 miles) off the southern coast of South Africa.
Maurice said the rig was operating in tough conditions at water depths of 1,500 meters in an area where strong winds and ocean currents were a challenge off Africa's southern tip, known by mariners as "the Cape of Storms".
Last month, South African President Jacob Zuma outlined ambitious plans for oil and gas exploration in coastal waters that he said could contain as much as 9 billion barrels of crude and vast quantities of natural gas.
Excitement has been generated by vast gas discoveries off the coast of neighbouring Mozambique, with South African waters one of the last major offshore frontiers on the continent which have yet to yield significant hydrocarbon finds.
Maurice told Reuters he met Zuma a few months ago and assured him "we strongly believe in the potential of the region."
"If we can prove that we have economic reserves there, of course it is an economic game-changer for South Africa."
(Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Writing by Ed Stoddard, editing by David Evans)
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