Oil companies have committed to spend more than $1.2 billion on exploration in a frontier area of the Newfoundland offshore in the coming years.

That's the biggest-ever combined amount to come in a round of bids for exploration rights in the region.

The high bids come even as oil prices have cratered to near seven-year lows. 

There were 11 parcels in total up for grabs, totaling 2.5 million hectares, in a horseshoe-shaped area around the Flemish Pass basin.

Bids were submitted and accepted for seven of them.

CNLOPB sign CBC

The Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB) regulates the province's offshore. (CBC)

According to the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB), nine companies participated in the process, and a total of 13 bids were submitted.

The Norwegian state-owned company Statoil — which already has significant holdings in the Flemish Pass area — is playing a role in six of the seven bids.

"The successful bids in these frontier areas offshore Canada are in line with Statoil's strategy of deepening our position in prolific basins and securing access at scale," Tim Dodson, Statoil's executive vice-president for exploration, said in a news release.

"The significant exploration investment offshore Newfoundland will provide Statoil an opportunity to further advance our established exploration position in this region through a step-wise approach."

ExxonMobil is partnering in three of the winning bids.

There are also new players to the region involved in some of the winning bids, including BG International Limited, BP Canada Energy Group ULC and Nexen Energy ULC.

The details of the winning bids are:

  • NL15-01-02: Chevron 35%; Statoil 35%; BG International 30% (274,732 hectares) $43,175,000.
  • NL15-01-05: Statoil:40%; ExxonMobil 35%; BG International 25% (267,403 hectares) $11,030,633.
  • NL15-01-06 Statoil 34%; ExxonMobil 33%; BP Canada Energy Group ULC 33% (262,230 hectares) $225,158,741.
  • NL15-01-07: Statoil 34%; ExxonMobil 33%; BP Canada Energy Group ULC 33% (254,321 hectares) $206,258,741.
  • NL15-01-08: Statoil 50%; BP Canada Energy Group ULC 50% (268,755 hectares) $35,140,653.
  • NL15-01-09: Statoil 100% (139,477 hectares) $423,189,945.
  • NL15-01-10: Nexen Energy ULC 100% (163,008 hectares) $261,000,000.

Potential for 12 billion barrels

An assessment released last month found that the 11 parcels in this call for bids had the potential for 12 billion barrels of oil and 113 trillion cubic feet of gas.

That resource assessment was carried out by a French company, Beicep Franlab, and was based on new geoscience data covering the area.

Exploration licences are issued for a nine-year period. That is expected happen in January, subject to ministerial approval.

According to the C-NLOPB, the sole criterion for selecting winning bids is the total amount of money the bidder commits to spend on exploration of the respective parcel during the first six years.

That time frame can be extended, although penalties apply.

New scheduled land tenure regime

This was the first call for bids for offshore Newfoundland and Labrador under the scheduled land tenure regime.

Government officials have said in the past that the new system gives companies more time to evaluate prospects, do geoscientific work, and prepare their bids.

This call for bids consisted of 11 parcels surrounding existing exploration licences in the Flemish Pass basin.

Those existing licences are mostly held by Statoil, in conjunction with minority partner Husky Energy.

In 2013, Statoil called its Bay du Nord prospect in the Flemish Pass a "high impact discovery" that could hold up to 600 million barrels of recoverable oil.

A year ago, a trio of major industry players submitted the highest-ever bid for oil exploration rights in the Newfoundland offshore.

ExxonMobil Canada Ltd., Suncor Energy Inc. and ConocoPhillips Canada Resources Corp. offered $559 million for a single 266,139-hectare parcel located southwest of Statoil's exploration licences in the Flemish Pass basin.

That bid, however, came on the heels of a period of much higher oil prices than today.

Oil key to N.L. economy

Results of the call for bids were keenly awaited by industry players in a province whose economy is dependent on the big benefits that can come from big oil.  

According to the government, the petroleum industry employed close to 12,000 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians at peak last year, and spent $3.4 billion in the province.

In recent years, about one third of the Newfoundland and Labrador treasury's own-source revenues have come from the offshore.

But the plunge in the price of black gold helped push the province into a billion-dollar-plus pool of red ink this fiscal year.

Attempts to generate interest

The province, through Crown-owned Nalcor Energy, has spent tens of millions of dollars doing work aimed at sparking industry interest in the potential of frontier areas off Newfoundland and Labrador.

Between 2010 and mid-2015, Nalcor and the provincial government funnelled $43.6 million into offshore exploration programs.

Those investments included extensive seismic surveys and other data-gathering work.

Nalcor says that spending leveraged roughly $150 million of investment from the global oil and gas industry, through the end of 2014.

CNLOPB call for bids 2015 map CNLOPB

The 2015 call for bids issued by the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board consists of 11 parcels (pictured in yellow) totalling 2.5 million hectares, in a horseshoe shape around existing exploration licences in the Flemish Pass basin. (Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board)