NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Forget Ebola. The next big thing to come out of Liberia may be crude oil. Since 2010, the government has awarded exploration rights for eight offshore blocks to bidders including Exxon Mobil (XOM) , Chevron (CVX) and Anadarko Petroleum (APC) . In addition, four new blocks are scheduled to conclude bidding this week. The country has mapped 30 blocks in total that could be opened for exploration.
Chevron says it's successfully drilled several exploration wells, but any oil is still years -- and billions of dollars in infrastructure -- away from coming to market, according to analysts. And oil finds could prove a boon -- or a bust -- to the impoverished West African country, which was still trying to recover from a decades-long civil war when it was hit again by the Ebola epidemic earlier this year.
Nearly a dozen foreign firms are already actively exploring off Liberia's coast, said Young Okunna, an upstream oil analyst at London-based energy consulting firm GlobalData. Other companies actively exploring include Spain's Repsol, Canadian Overseas Petroleum Ltd/, Mistubishi Corp. of Japan, European Hydrocarbons/African Petroleum (listed in Oslo and Australia), Compania Espanola de Petroleos (Cepsa), the Spanish oil company owned by Abu Dhabi's International Petroleum Investment Company, and a Nigerian oil firm called Oranto.
African Petroleum (NSX: AOQ) said it's found oil in one the blocks it's exploring, and Chevron said it's completed drilling three test wells. An Exxon spokesman says his firm has yet to drill a well off the coast of Liberia.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the West African Transform Margin, the offshore oil region that stretches from Guinea through Sierra Leone, Liberia and the edge of Nigeria, holds 7 billion barrels of crude oil, some 60 trillion cubic feet of gas and 1.8 billion barrels of natural gas liquids.
If oil is developed in commercial quantity, it's most likely to be exported. "The economy's not able to give the exploration companies the cashflows they need," Okunna said in an interview. "They don't have a refinery in the country, so the oil has to be sold off and the cash used to run the economy of the country. Right now, Liberia just runs on international aid." Liberia now imports diesel fuel to generate virtually all its electricity, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.