The government of Sierra Leone has set February 28 as the closing date for submissions of interest from suitors keen to acquire an upstream position in the current 4th Licensing Round.
"There will be a brief three-month period of evaluation and it is hoped awards may emerge from mid-year, according to Petroleum Directorate Director General Timothy Kabba.
Sierra Leone enjoys a 402 kilometre long coastline and all offshore acreage is up for grabs, from the shallows, where open and competitive tenders will apply, to the ultra-deep, where for practical reasons it is deemed useful to make awards by direct negotiation.
Direct tenders will apply where 50% or more of the acreage lies in water depths in excess of 2500 meteres.
"We didn't want to have people just sitting on their blocks, so we conceived a flexible block framework across the entire basin," he said at the Africa Oil Week conference in Cape Town.
Companies can select their own blocks and construct their own licence area. "It's important to appreciate the difficulties companies face to encourage exploration as more than 50% of our basin lies in the ultra-deep," he said.
Partial block submissions will be acceptable but the total acreage applied for must be contiguous and equivalent to a minimum of three demarcated blocks - for example, 4000 square kilometres, he said.
"You can choose at least three and there is no maximum, though overlapping applications will be evaluated on their relative merit."
No minimum work programme is provided for the initial exploration period but companies are required to conduct studies that clearly lead towards drilling of an exploration well, although other biddable items listed in Section-C of the standard application will apply, he said.
"The bidding and awards process will enjoy public oversight as we are part if the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and successful applicants will have 30 days to accept any proposed award so that we can proceed to ratification."
UK consultant Getech, which is advising on data management and presentation in the capital Freetown, says Cretaceous turbdites, fans and channel system plays abound in the central ultra-deep basin, while the tectonics demonstrate a geological affinity with French Guiana and Suriname.
A working petroleum system is evidenced in a series of oil and gas samples from four of the six wells drilled between 2009 and 2013, with Sierra Leone likely forming part of the MSGBC (Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea-Conakry) basin extending south from Mauritania, according to Getech.