Lebanon’s Energy & Water Ministry is evaluating prequalification documents from 52 oil companies ahead of its first offshore oil and gas exploration round.

Prequalification closed on 28 March. The qualified firms are expected to be announced on 18 April, with the licensing round due to open on 2 May, according to the ministry.

Contracts could be awarded in early 2014. The oil firms were given the option of qualifying as operators or partners. Fourteen opted for operator status, with the remaining 38 applying as non-operating partners.

The auction has attracted the attention of several oil firms. Four of the largest publically owned oil firms submitted applications, including US oil majors, Chevron and ExxonMobil, the UK/Dutch Shell Group and France’s Total.

There are also numerous mid-sized firms such as the US’ Marathon, Italy’s Eni and Spain’s Repsol. State-owned National Iranian Drilling Company also submitted its documents.

Once qualified, the firms will form consortium of at least three members, with one operator and two partners.

Lebanon formed the Petroleum Administration Authority (PAA) in November 2012, to oversee the exploration of the country’s 22,730-square-kilometre offshore area in the eastern Mediterranean.

Interest in the offshore region has been growing since 2010, when the US’ Noble Energy discovered an estimated 17 trillion cubic feet of natural gas at its Leviathan concession off the coast of Israel, which lies near the maritime border with Lebanon.