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Panama oil reserves upgraded in survey reports

PANAMA CITY, Panama, Sept. 1 (UPI) -- Expert surveys in Panama have established the Central American nation is sitting on an oil bonanza worth at least $15 billion.

Panama is dependent on imported oil and rising demand puts added pressure on the country's cash resources. But the latest results of scientific surveys promise a timely relief at least for the next two decades.

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The surveys confirmed oil deposits in two basins that have geological seams linking them to reserves in Colombia in the southeast. Based on the findings, the surveys indicated the eastern Panama region may be holding at least 900 million barrels of oil.

Panama's National Energy Secretariat cited the estimates of oil deposits and income projects in a report on the results of the scientific surveys.

Senior government aides welcomed the news, a potential boost to approval ratings for President Ricardo Martinelli.

The Garachine-Sambu and Bayano-Chucunaque-Atrato basins of Panama's Darien province on the Colombian border have been the subject of a targeted exploration by Venezuela's OTS with financing from the Inter-American Development Bank. The IDB partly funded the $476,765 contract while Panama's Energy Secretariat also contributed cash to the project.

OTS, formed by former employees of the frequently nationalized Venezuelan state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., was contracted to carry out the investigation in the Tonosi, Darien and Bocas del Toro regions and build a database of potential hydrocarbon reserves.

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The two basins are likely to be divided into four blocks each of exploratory areas for which a timetable for bidding is yet to be established.

The government has said a bidding process for exploration rights and for determining the deposits' quality and volume would likely be launched later in 2011.

Martinelli is pushing for oil exploration because of Panama's need to have its own energy resources and lessen the country's dependence on foreign sources for its energy needs, the Energy Secretariat said. Reports of substantial oil reserves have been circulating in Panama since April 2010, when Martinelli announced oil deposits had been detected in the area.

Panama has been exploring for oil since the last century but has yet to produce commercial quantities. More than 36 exploratory wells drilled over the years have not yielded major oil finds.

Panama's dollar-based economy depends on its dynamic services sector that accounts for three-quarters of the gross domestic production. Different sectors, including Panama Canal operations, logistics, banking, the Colon Free Zone, insurance, container ports, flagship registry and tourism, contribute to that income.

Panama's economic growth is set to be bolstered by the $5.3 billion Panama Canal expansion project that began in 2007 and is scheduled to be completed by 2014.

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