BEIRUT, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Lebanon launched a pre-qualification round for oil and gas exploration in its Mediterranean waters on Friday, the first step towards the planned award of contracts by March next year.
Energy Minister Gebran Bassil said bids must be submitted by March 28 and the names of pre-qualified companies would be issued by April 18.
That represents a further slippage in a process which has been dogged by delays since Lebanon started moves to attract international firms - several years behind its southern neighbour Israel, which has already discovered huge gas reserves.
Bassil told representatives of international oil and gas firms that Lebanon still aims to issue its first exploration and production agreement by February next year, and hoped the country could "enter the development phase starting 2016".
"The government of Lebanon is committed to ensure a secure investment climate, with full transparency in the evaluation process throughout the bidding round," Bassil said, addressing concerns that Lebanon's political and sectarian rivalries could undermine the work.
He said 29 companies had already expressed interest in bidding. A quarter of them were U.S. firms, and European and Asian companies had also sought details from seismic surveys.
Delegates at an oil and gas conference in Beirut in December said Lebanese waters could contain between 30 trillion and 40 trillion cubic feet of gas. Bassil said in September that one southern bloc alone could hold 12 trillion cubic feet and this was enough gas to produce electricity for Lebanon for 99 years.
Interest in drilling in the eastern Mediterranean has grown since two natural gas fields were discovered off Israel. Lebanon hopes that gas discoveries could help address its government debt and chronic domestic power shortages. (Reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)