"We are only waiting for the minister's approval," said Vierma, speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a regional oil event. "We could be starting this early next year," he added.
He said the operating licenses would be sold to domestic oil firms, but foreign oil companies will have the opportunity to team up with local companies to develop the fields, which are currently run by state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PVZ.YY). Vierma said each field currently produces 1,500 to 2,000 barrels a day, but that this production could double under private management.
"PdVSA does not have the manpower or institutional knowledge to increase this production," said Vierma.
He expects private firms to invest $10-15 million in each field. Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez confirmed that the oil field licensing round is underway, but said it would happen after a natural gas licensing round in the Gulf of Venezuela that is also scheduled for early next year.
Venezuela sold 33 similar operating agreements in the 1990s for so-called marginal fields, and combined production is currently at around 550,000 b/d. Venezuela, the world's fifth largest oil exporter, has ambitious plans to nearly double oil production by 2009.
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