IT was not the first and will probably not be the last. But in the spring of 1998, word of a major gas discovery spread through Ras alKhaimah like wildfire. As it swept across the emirate, the size of the supposed find grew ever larger, the level of expectation ever higher. In the end, it was all misplaced. For in late May of that year, the privately owned Ras alKhaimah Oil & Gas Company announced that its $20 million offshore exploration programme had yielded nothing.

The Northern Emirates have long promised much but delivered very little for oil prospectors. Despite its close proximity to some of the most prolific oil and gas fields in the world, the area has still to come up with a major discovery outside Sharjah. The poor returns have not stopped the intrepid, however. With interpretation of new seismic data ongoing in Umm al-Qaiwain and Fujairah, the search continues for that elusive commercial discovery.

Sharjah is the only major producer in the Northern Emirates, with current gas output standing at an estimated 500 million cubic feet a day (cf/d). Although production is down from the mid-1990 peak of 700 million cf/d, steps are now underway to halt the decline.

Amoco Sharjah Oil Company (ASOC), now part of BP, accounts for nearly all the emirate’s gas output and operates the onshore gas fields of Kahaif, Sajaa and Moveiyad. In August, it brought on stream one new well at the onshore Sajaa field and is preparing to complete the drilling of a second in November.

Each well is expected to produce 40 million cf/d.

Hopes of a new discovery are also pinned on another onshore Sharjah concession, held jointly by the local Crescent Petroleum Company and Atlantis Holdings of Norway, part of the Petroleum Geo-Services group. At the Hamriyah-2 concession, a new well is due to be completed in late October.

The Crescent/Atlantis team has already had some gas success in offshore Sharjah. A year ago, it announced that drilling in the Sharjah-2 concession had confirmed the presence of significant hydrocarbon deposits. The well, the first to be drilled in the acreage for 20 years, tested at a rate of 39 million cf/d.

However, Crescent said at the time it considered the well capable of test rates of 50 million cf/d. It has since been capped, pending further tests and offtake agreements.

Sharjah is currently the only emirate where drilling work is being carried out. Elsewhere, activity is confined to seismic survey work. In Umm al-Qaiwain, where Atlantis signed a concession agreement with the government in early 2000, seismic studies were completed in July by the US’ Baker Hughes and Western Geophysical over an offshore area of 20-40 square kilometres.

‘We are currently processing the data and a result is imminent, ‘ says Adel Karas, president of Petroleum Geo-Services Middle East.

‘The offshore site is prospective. Onshore, seismic work is in the pipeline. We expect to discover condensates and natural gas.’

Atlantis is also active in Ras al-Khaimah, having signed in 1998 a concession agreement with the government covering onshore and offshore acreage. Three-dimensional seismic work has been carried out on the offshore B structure to determine the size and workability of a discovery dating back to the 1970s. The company is now interpreting the data.

Elsewhere, Baker Hughes has recently completed seismic work onshore and offshore Fujairah. As for Ajman, the government in February set up an oil department to oversee hydrocarbons policy.