ZAGREB, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Croatia has received seven bids at an international tender for onshore exploration of oil and gas in the northern Drava river basin and the east of the country, Economy Minister Ivan Vrdoljak said on Wednesday.
The tender follows a licensing round for drilling in the Adriatic Sea and is part of the newest European Union member's drive to improve its energy security, attract investment and revive its economy, which has been in recession since 2009.
Vrdoljak did not name the bidders but said he was satisfied because the bids came "from very serious companies", he told reporters after the tender closed.
"This is just the beginning. We have more potential for exploration in northern and central Croatia, particularly in the Dinarides (central mountain range)," Vrdoljak said.
State Hydrocarbons Agency director Barbara Doric said licences should be awarded in early April at the latest.
The tender comprises six block areas whose sizes vary between 2,100 and 2,600 square kilometres. Vrdoljak said the bidders had expressed interest in all the offered blocks.
Croatia awarded on Jan. 10 licences for gas and oil exploration in the Adriatic and exploration contracts are expected to be signed in April. The investment over the next four years is expected to be worth some $2.5 billion.
Seven licences went to a consortium of U.S.-based Marathon Oil and Austria's OMV. INA, co-owned by the Croatian government, and Hungary's MOL, won two licences, while one licence was awarded to a consortium made up of Italy's ENI and London-based Medoilgas.
Local ecology groups say oil drilling in the Adriatic could harm the environment and Croatia's lucrative tourism industry. The government says it will require the oil companies to implement the highest standards of environment protection.
(Reporting by Igor Ilic; Writing by Zoran Radosavljevic; Editing by Mark Potter and Susan Thomas)
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