By Marianna Parraga
LA GUIRA, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuela's Mariscal Sucre offshore gas project will begin production in December after years of delays and difficulties in attracting foreign partners, the South American country's energy minister said.
President Hugo Chavez's government wants to develop natural gas production to meet growing domestic demand that has forced Venezuela, despite sitting on some of the world's biggest gas reserves, to import supplies from neighboring Colombia.
Electricity shortages caused widespread rationing and curbed economic growth in 2010, and are a still a burning political issue for the socialist Chavez during an election year.
Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said initial output from Mariscal Sucre would be 300 million cubic feet a day, eventually rising to 1.2 billion cubic feet per day. The project's total reserves are estimated at 14.7 trillion cubic feet (tcf).
"We can't be waiting for partners. There is demand for gas that we have to meet," Ramirez told reporters on Friday during a trip to the project in the Caribbean sea.
Mariscal Sucre's development has been delayed in part because of the sinking of a $200 million exploration rig there in May 2010. Venezuela's state oil company PDVSA has insisted that any potential investor assume part of what it says was a total loss of more than $600 million from that disaster.
Total investment needs for the project are estimated at more than $14 billion.
Separately, Italy's ENI and Spain's Repsol have signed a deal with PDVSA to develop the Perla field, where the Europeans have certified more than 15 tcf.
Venezuela's natural gas projects have languished for years, stalled by pricing issues and industry fears of expropriations that made it hard for PDVSA to attract experienced partners.
The government says it will eventually certify as much as 400 tcf in reserves, up from 195 tcf now, which would propel Venezuela to fourth in the world behind Russia, Iran and Qatar, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data.
(Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Vicki Allen)