CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Imperial Oil Ltd, Exxon Mobil Corp and BP Plc have formed a joint venture to explore for oil and gas in acreage the oil majors hold in the Beaufort Sea in Canada's Arctic, Imperial said on Friday.
Under the deal, signed this month, the companies will team up to explore, and possibly develop, offshore blocks they picked up for hundreds of millions of dollars in 2007 and 2008, Imperial's Gordon Wong said.
The aim is to avoid costly duplication of equipment and personnel in the remote, icy Beaufort, where there is little energy industry infrastructure.
The companies signed the agreement as Canadian regulators prepared to review offshore drilling requirements in the country in the aftermath of BP's well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, which triggered the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
However, they began their talks in 2009, long before the Gulf disaster, Wong said.
"This really predated that. These discussions have been ongoing for quite a long period of time and so we've recently reached an agreement," he said.
Imperial and its majority owner, Exxon Mobil, will each own 25 percent of the venture and one of them will be operator. BP will own the remaining 50 percent.
The partners will not start exploratory work on the acreage until after Canada's National Energy Board completes its review of offshore safety and environmental impact, Wong said.
When the NEB announced the review in May, it canceled a planned hearing on a request from BP and Exxon to reexamine a requirement that Arctic drillers need to drill a relief well in the same season that an exploratory well is completed.
There is no date yet for when the review is to begin, a spokeswoman for the NEB said.
In May, Bruce March, Imperial's chief executive, said he did not expect to drill a well on the company's Beaufort acreage for four or five years. The company has not drilled a well there since 1989-90.
Imperial and Exxon Mobil acquired the Beaufort acreage license, called EL446, in 2007 for C$585 million ($568 million), a price that raised eyebrows in the energy industry at the time.
The following year, BP acquired EL449, its contribution to the venture, as part of a C$1.2 billion acquisition of Arctic exploration blocks.
This month, BP agreed to sell its Canadian natural gas operations to Apache Corp as part of a $7 billion deal to raise funds to pay for the U.S. Gulf spill, but its Arctic holdings were not part of that transaction.
Imperial is the lead partner in the C$16.2 billion Mackenzie gas pipeline project, which is expected to receive a go-ahead decision from the NEB in September. The pipeline would run from the Beaufort Sea to existing lines in northern Alberta.
Communities in Canada's Far North have been anticipating the long-delayed gas pipeline for its potential to trigger more economic development.
Construction of the Mackenzie project could kick-start more Beaufort Sea exploration, analysts and local officials have said, as the line could be used to transport gas to markets.
However, Mackenzie is not expected to start up before 2018, assuming regulatory and corporate approval.
The only Beaufort well in the last 20 years was drilled by Devon Energy Corp in 2005-06. It cost $60 million. Devon was looking for natural gas and found 240 million barrels of oil. It has not developed the field.
Officials at BP's Canadian unit were not immediately available for comment on the Beaufort venture.
Additional reporting by Scott Haggett; editing by Peter Galloway