RIO DE JANEIRO--Asian national oil companies lead the list of 11 potential bidders for Brazil's largest oil discoveries, the country's National Petroleum Agency, or ANP, said late Thursday.

China's CNOOC Ltd. (CEO), China National Petroleum Corp., and China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. (600028.SH), also known as Sinopec, were among the firms that paid a 2.1 million Brazilian reais ($953,678) fee to register to participate in the auction, which is scheduled for Oct. 21.

Sinopec will participate via its Repsol Sinopec joint venture with Spain's Repsol YPF (REP.MC). Malaysia's Petroliam Nasional Bhd, or Petronas, and India's ONGC Videsh also registered to bid, the ANP said.

Brazil sent several government officials to China over the past few weeks to drum up interest in the auction of Libra, which is estimated to hold between 8 billion and 12 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil. ANP Director Magda Chambriard went to Beijing earlier this month to present details of the auction, and Maria das Gracas Foster--the chief executive of state-run energy giant Petroleo Brasileiro (PBR, PETR4.BR), or Petrobras--visited China in late August.

The sale was expected to draw significant interest from state-run entities from Asian countries hungry for resources, but some of the world's largest oil majors opted not to participate. Chevron Corp. (CVX), Exxon Mobil (XOM), BP Plc (BP) and BG Group (BG.LN) all opted not to participate, indicating that the oil industry remained concerned about high costs and potential returns from the project despite its massive potential.

The ANP has estimated that it could take as much as 400 billion Brazilian reais ($177 billion) to develop Libra over the 35-year life of the concession contract.

The price tag was not enough to scare off Royal Dutch Shell (RDSA.LN), France's Total SA (TOT), Portugal's Galp Energia (GALP.LB) and Colombia's Ecopetrol (EC), which all already have exploration acreage in Brazil. Japanese trading house Mitsui & Co. (MITSY) also registered, the ANP said. Petrobras also registered, indicating that it could potentially seek more than the 30% stake in Libra the company is guaranteed under new production-sharing agreements.

Companies still need to receive technical qualifications to participate in the auction, the ANP said. In addition, paying the registration fee does not guarantee that a company will bid.

Shell said that it was still evaluating whether to make a bid. "We have submitted our qualification information and participation fee to ANP, which ensures that Shell is approved to participate in the bid round should we choose to do so," the company said in a statement.

Libra is one of the so-called presalt oil fields discovered off Brazil's southeast coast. The oil deposits were found buried in waters 2,000 meters deep and a further 5,000 meters below the seabed under sand rocks and a thick layer of salt--hence presalt. The oil fields could make Brazil one of the world's top-10 oil producers.

The auction will be the first under new rules draw up by the Brazilian government that place development and profits under greater state control. Winning bids will be determined by the amount of profit oil, or oil produced after development costs, that companies agree to give the Brazilian government. The winners will have to pay a signing bonus of BRL15 billion and partner with Petrobras, which will have a 30% stake in the field and be the field's operator.

Write to Jeff Fick at -0-

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