Venezuela is touting a vast natural gas discovery off its coast, a project that President Hugo Chavez says will help turn the oil-exporting country into a major global gas producer.

Venezuela's oil minister, Rafael Ramirez, said Monday that the latest exploratory drilling has confirmed "extraordinary results": about 15 trillion cubic feet of gas under the sea floor in a place where experts once thought there was only a fraction of that amount. Italian energy company Eni SpA, which is a partner in the project, announced the drilling results last week, calling it the biggest natural gas deposit in Venezuela and one of the most significant finds in recent years.

Energy analysts caution that Venezuela, which already leads Latin America in proven gas reserves, remains far from being able to sell its gas internationally and is still working on trying to meet its domestic demand.

Yet Eni CEO Paolo Scaroni expressed optimism on Monday based on what his company saw drilling at the well known as Pearl 3 in 230 feet (70 meters) of water off western Venezuela.

"In the past weeks, it has proven more important than we had thought," he said at an event launching a separate $17 billion oil project involving Eni and the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA.

Scaroni said the oil and gas projects together mean that Venezuela "is going to be a truly strategic country for our development."

Eni is involved in the offshore gas project along with Spanish energy company Repsol-YPF, and Chavez has been talking up the project for some time. In March, he called it a "super well" and said it could hold up to 14 trillion cubic feet. Celebrating the latest results last week, Chavez declared: "We're turning into a world gas power."

Venezuela's proven gas reserves have been growing. In August, PDVSA said the country's proven reserves had reached 185 trillion cubic feet, making the country No. 9 in the world and first in Latin America.

Yet some of Venezuela's neighbors have done more with less.

Nearby Trinidad and Tobago has 14.4 trillion cubic feet of proven reserves of natural gas, and its current production is 4 billion cubic feet per day, according to the country's energy ministry. The two-island nation is the largest supplier of liquefied natural gas to the United States, accounting for 57 percent of all cargos in September.

A large portion of Venezuela's natural gas, in contrast, has traditionally been reinjected into oil wells to help produce crude.

Meanwhile, the country's liquefied natural gas projects "have been on the planning stages for over thirty years without one of them coming to fruition," said Jorge Pinon, an energy expert and visiting research fellow at Florida International University in Miami.

"PDVSA's track record in meeting its completion target dates for its various ... oil and natural gas development projects over the last ten years falls short," Pinon said. "Regrettably the Eni project has a very low probability of being completed based on past experiences."

Eni said in a statement that it and Repsol, along with PDVSA, are looking at options for quickly tapping the gas field in an "early production phase," to use the wells that have already been drilled and light offshore platforms to bring the gas through a pipeline to a facility onshore.

Ramirez said initial gas output could go to the domestic market, and that the offshore field is located about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the refineries of the Paraguana Peninsula. He said other gas projects off the country's coast are projected to bring gas to shore in 2012 both for domestic use and for export.

But Venezuelan energy analyst Heliodoro Quintero said bringing the gas to shore from the Pearl field would take time and considerable investment. He said if officials decide to export it and build infrastructure for liquefied natural gas, it would likely cost about $6 billion and take no less than five years.

Quintero noted that Venezuela currently has a domestic gas deficit, and that some gas is imported from Colombia to the Maracaibo area for domestic use and to generate electricity.

Several years ago, Chavez raised the idea of a South American natural gas pipeline stretching from Venezuela through Brazil southward. The idea has failed to take shape, in part due to the giant scale of the proposal and the many billions of dollars that would be involved.

Another big reason, Quintero said, is that "there's no gas for the gas pipeline of the south, nor for any international gas pipeline."


Associated Press writer Tony Fraser in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, contributed to this report.