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Hopes are running high in Bosnia that a soon-to-start search will confirm long-suspected reserves of oil and natural gas and put the country on the world's energy map.

The mountainous Balkan country is already rich in hydropower, which helps it earn hard currency though the export of electricity, but it will have to wait several more years to find out whether it will become a player in fossil fuels, as well.

Its two autonomous regions have teamed up with renowned foreign partners to start the search for oil in the north and the south of the country, which some local geologists estimate could be hundreds of millions of barrels.

For comparison, world leader Saudi Arabia's reserves of oil are 270 billion barrels, while Balkan neighbors Serbia and Croatia are in the lower reaches with 70 million barrels apiece, respectively. Total world reserves are 1.3 trillion barrels.

Esad Trhulj, the energy minister of the Muslim-Croat Federation, said last week that the region should sign in November a preliminary deal with Royal Dutch Shell for a two-year research project.

"After an estimated two-year period, we should have a clear indication about the potential oil and gas reserves," Trhulj said, adding that Shell would first conduct a digital screening of the territory, followed by geophysical and seismic research.

Meanwhile, in Republika Srpska, the country’s other half, a joint venture between a unit of Russia's state-owned Zarubezhneft, which owns Bosnia's only oil refinery, and Serbia's Naftna industrija Srbije, majority-owned by Russia's Gazprom, announced the start of its search for oil and gas reserves in the north of the country.

The first explorations in the north, in the Sava River basin, were conducted more than a century ago and then intermittently over the next several decades, but yielded meager results.

In the 1980s, Bosnia's former engineering and energy conglomerate Energoinvest conducted some further search, partly financed by U.S. oil giant Amoco, that found some oil. But all activities ceased with the onset of Bosnia's 1992-95 war.

Bosnian geologists estimate potential reserves in the north at between 20 and 70 million barrels.

In the south, potential reserves are said to be in the mountainous limestone area of Herzegovina. There have never been explorations in this region, and some local estimates put potential reserves there at 500 million barrels.

One reader who commented on the website of Sarajevo daily "Dnevni avaz" was already convinced: "If Shell is interested, then it means there is a lot of oil in our country."

-- Nedim Dervisbegovic

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