London-based oil and gas exploration and production company Ophir Energy is to start prospecting for oil off the coast of Tanzania in what will be the first ever deepwater drilling project in the country.

The company holds licences in three deepwater blocks, which together cover an area of 28,000 sqkm in the Mafia Deep Offshore Basin and the northern portion of the Ruvuma Basin.

The contract is scheduled to begin within the next two months and will take an estimated 100 days to complete. In the event of a commercial discovery the Tanzanian government has back-in rights of between 12 and 15 per cent. Ophir Energy is operating in a joint venture with the UK-based integrated gas company BG Group.

The search for oil and gas in Tanzania started in the 1950s and has gained pace in recent years, with at 17 companies currently operating in the country according to the website of the Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation.

So far proven natural gas deposits of about 3.3 trillion cubic feet have been discovered, with commercial production under way at the Songo Songo field in Kilwa district, southern Tanzania. No oil has been produced to date although available data and geological information show the existence of an active petroleum system that the country is eager to tap.