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Houston — Oil exploration drilling is heating up in an offshore area of northeastern South America traditionally known as "The Guianas," after Tullow Oil announced success recently at Jethro, its first Guyana oil find in modestly deep waters.

Guyana is not only active with oil exploration, and abuzz with plans for more, but first production is expected early next year by an ExxonMobil-led consortium at the deepwater Stabroek Block.

The group, as well as Tullow and other operators, have planned more wells in the country's offshore in the next 12 months.

Activity is also stirring in adjacent Suriname, which hopes to replicate its neighbor's success in one of the world's few emerging areas of large oil prospectivity. While there have been a number of Suriname dry holes in recent years, several operators have wells planned there on a bet that Guyana-type oil-rich rocks extend across the border.

The Guyana-Suriname basin was last assessed by the US Geological Survey in 2002 at about 13 billion barrels of oil. USGS oil and gas assessment chief Chris Schenk told S&P Global Platts the agency expects to reevaluate it next year.

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"The whole area appears to be characterized by excellent quality reservoirs" in deep and also shallow waters, Tullow CEO Paul McDade said in a recent conference call, speaking chiefly of Guyana. "This should lead to relatively standard kind of ... development options in the event of discoveries."

Guyana production is projected to average 40,000 b/d in 2020 and as much as 160,000 b/d in 2023, according to an Platts Analytics forecast.

Those figures chiefly stem from oil produced by ExxonMobil's partnership, which will bring the 120,000 b/d Liza Phase One project online in early 2020.

The group recently approved Phase Two, which would bring on another 180,000-220,000 b/d by mid-2022. A third development at another field, Payara, should be sanctioned in late 2019. Stabroek alone should produce more than 750,000 b/d by 2025 from five production facilities, the group has said.

MORE GUYANA WELLS SEEN IN COMING MONTHS

Tullow, which announced Jethro on the Orinduik block in early August, has quickly followed it with Joe, a well to be spudded this month further west on the block. After that comes Carapa, a Repsol-operated Guyana well planned on the Kanuku block to the south in September, with results expected by Q4.

Jethro, which contains about 100 million recoverable barrels of oil equivalent and is situated in the northeast corner of Orinduik, bordering Stabroek, is the first rival find in a region that appears abundant with crude even though Suriname has yet to prove itself as oil-saturated as its neighbor.

Tullow's McDade said further exploration is contemplated next year across Orinduik and Carapa.

Other wells are in progress, or will be soon.

The ExxonMobil-led group, which includes Hess and China's CNOOC, has so far made 13 of Guyana's 14 oil discoveries. They are now preparing to spud two to three exploration wells in the country by year-end 2019, starting with one called Tripletail this month. Hess, ExxonMobil and smaller partners will drill the Kaieteur block to the north next year.

In Suriname, where at least four non-commercial wells have been drilled in as many years by Kosmos Energy and Apache, the next 12 months nonetheless look busy.

Despite setbacks at two Suriname wells - Kolibri on Block 53 in 2017 and Popokai on its 1.44 million-acre Block 58 in 2015 - Apache next month will spud another well on Block 58. The tract borders some of Stabroek's most productive areas in Guyana and is near Haimara, the ExxonMobil group's southeasternmost find on, or very near, the two countries' maritime border.

But in recent remarks, Apache CEO John Christmann refused to say if his company's upcoming well, which should take 30 to 60 days to drill and is one of several more wells permitted in Suriname, would directly offset Haimara.

"When we look at the views across by kind of stitching together the 2-D and 3-D data [from Suriname] and taking into account Guyana activity going on next door, you'll find that the geologic setting is not changing much," Christmann said. "But it's exploration."

APACHE SURINAME BLOCK HAS SEVEN PLAY TYPES

Christmann added there are seven play types and over 50 large prospects in the block from which to select targets.

In addition, Tullow eyes drilling the Goliathberg-Voltzberg prospect in 2020 on Suriname's Block 47 in 1,900 meters of water with partners Pluspetrol and Ratio Exploration. And Kosmos, which drilled the non-commercial Pontoenoe well on Block 42 last October and the Anapai well in Block 45 in June 2018, still plans to push ahead with exploration in the country.

Earlier this year, Kosmos was mulling the Walker prospect for 2020 drilling on Block 42, which is also adjacent to the Turbot area of southeast Stabroek in Guyana. Hess especially sees Turbot as a target-rich area and said recently it is expected to become a major development hub.

Other companies hold acreage in Suriname, including Cairn Energy and Equinor and their respective partners, while in Guyana Anadarko Petroleum (which was absorbed into Occidental Petroleum in early August) and CGX each operate separate blocks with partners.

Guyana and Suriname are part of a region of northern South America called "The Guianas," involving three countries - Guyana, formerly known as British Guiana; Suriname, formerly Dutch Guiana; and French Guiana.

The region also includes parts of eastern Venezuela on the west and Brazil's Amapa state to the east. Those two areas were respectively known as Spanish Guyana and Portuguese or Brazilian Guiana.

-- Starr Spencer, starr.spencer@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Gary Gentile, newsdesk@spglobal.com