* Fifteen firms, consortium bid for Cyprus offshore blocks
* Noble eyes potential oil exploration in gas fields
NICOSIA, Oct 9 (Reuters) - Cyprus is close to short-listing companies bidding for offshore oil and gas contracts in the energy-rich east Mediterranean, officials said on Tuesday.
The island has received 15 bids from companies or consortiums for nine offshore blocks rimming the south of the island in an area where a significant natural gas discovery was reported in Dec. 2011.
Among the bidders are Italy's ENI , France's Total , Malaysia's Petronas and Russia's Novatek .
State-commissioned consultants are now reviewing expressions of interest and would file their findings in coming days.
"That will be submitted to the cabinet which will decide which companies negotiations are to start with," said Commerce and Industry Minister Neoclis Sylikiotis, who is also responsible for energy matters.
He said he expected the decision to be taken by the cabinet this month.
Israel, Cyprus and Lebanon have reported significant natural gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean region, known as the Levant basin.
The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated over 100 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of reserves could lie untapped throughout the region, almost equal to the world's total annual consumption of natural gas.
Noble , the U.S. concern which reported major natural gas discoveries off Israel and Cyprus, could potentially follow up its natural gas venture with exploration for oil, said John Tomich, the Cyprus country manager for Noble Energy.
"The tantalising element here is the possibility of oil," Tomich told a conference in Nicosia. There were tentative plans to explore but that had not been finalised, he said.
Noble planned to confirm its 5-8 tcf Cyprus discovery in one area with a second drilling slated for the first or second quarter of 2013, depending on the availability of a rig, he said.
Discoveries have sparked investor interest, but also revived decades-old disputes among neighbours.
Turkey, which does not recognise the government in Nicosia, says it will block international oil firms from bidding in Turkish energy projects if they take part in Cyprus's offshore energy ventures.
The island was split in a Turkish invasion in 1974 following a short-lived Greek Cypriot coup. Turkey supports a breakaway unrecognised state in northern Cyprus.
(Reporting by Michele Kambas; editing by James Jukwey)
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Keywords: ENERGY CYPRUS/GAS