Total to start deepwater gas drilling off Bulgaria
* Bulgaria hopes for a huge gas discovery, sees oil potential
* Production can start in six years
* Total, OMV and Repsol to invest hundreds millions of euros
SOFIA, Aug 29 (Reuters) - A consortium, led by French oil major Total, will start exploring for gas and oil off Bulgaria's Black Sea coast, boosting the Balkan country hopes to end its almost complete dependence on Russian gas imports.
Bulgaria signed on Wednesday a five-year contract with Total, Austria's OMV and Spain's Repsol to start exploration near a site in Romanian waters where a successful gas discovery was made.
The 14,440 sq km Khan Asparuh block is only 15 km from OMV's Neptun block, which the Austrian company has said could produce up to 84 billion cubic metres of gas.
"Today we are paving the way to Bulgaria's energy independence," Energy Minister Delyan Dobrev said after the singing.
Bulgaria meets over 90 percent of its gas needs with supplies from Russia's Gazprom and is seeking ways to diversify its gas routes and sources to cuts costs and boost its energy security.
Dobrev has said that gas production could start in six years, provided that the exploration points to substantial gas reserves.
"Out hopes are that the gas deposits will at least match the deposits discovered in the Romanian field. And our field is three times bigger," Dobrev said.
Total, OMV and Repsol will spend hundreds of millions of euros to carry out seismic acquisition and drilling two wells at 5,000 m and 6,000 m depths, said Fabrice Chevalier, a project director at Total.
The drilling of a deep water well is estimated to cost around 300 million euros.
"In the future, if there is a development, there will be certainly (an investment of) billions of dollars, if there are hydrocarbons," Chevalier said.
Bulgaria's gas consumption averages 3 bcm per year. If the discovery is as big as in the Romania's field, it will meet the European Union's poorest member's gas needs for dozens of years.
"We spend a lot of money, so we hope we find something, for the benefit of Bulgaria and our companies," said Patrick Pluen, Total's vice president France and Italy.
In the new venture, Total holds 40 percent, and OMV and Repsol 30 percent each. (Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova, editing by William Hardy)