Nicosia (AFP) - US giant ExxonMobil with Qatar Petroleum, Italy's ENI and France's Total have been selected to negotiate a licence to explore offshore Cyprus oil and gas, officials said Wednesday.
In July, eight energy giants bid for drilling rights at three blocks off the Mediterranean island's southern coast.
ENI and Total were jointly selected as preferred bidders for block 6 and ENI was picked for block 8, while ExxonMobil and Qatar Petroleum were chosen for block 10.
Licenses would let firms prospect in waters near Egypt's Zohr field, where ENI in August 2015 discovered the "largest ever" offshore natural gas field in the Mediterranean.
The Zohr field is estimated to hold some 850 billion cubic metres (30 trillion cubic feet) of gas.
The cabinet has the final say on granting the new licenses for the three blocks.
If "negotiations are successful, and provided that the agreed contract per individual block is approved by the council of ministers, hydrocarbon exploration licenses shall be granted," the cabinet said in a statement.
Cyprus Energy Minister George Lakkotrypis said he hoped negotiations would be finalised by February.
US firm Noble Energy made the first find off the southeastern coast of Cyprus in 2011 in the Aphrodite field, which is estimated to contain around 127.4 billion cubic metres (4.54 trillion cubic feet) of gas.
Italian-South Korean venture ENI-Kogas has so far failed to discover any exploitable gas reserves in deep-sea drilling off Cyprus.
ENI already has the right to exploit three blocks in a zone that borders Egypt's gas fields.
ENI has said exploratory drilling off the island's southern shore will begin next year. Total is also expected to do the same in 2017.
Cyprus planned to build a liquefied natural gas plant that would allow exports by ship to Asia and Europe, but the reserves confirmed so far are insufficient to make that feasible.
The Mediterranean island hopes to begin exporting gas, and maybe oil, by 2022.