STATOIL, one of the partners behind the Corrib gas project, has begun searching for gas in an adjacent area off the Mayo coast which is four times the size of the original Corrib field.
The firm's public affairs manager, Kai Nielsen, confirmed that it would carry out seismic tests in the area this summer and hoped to drill a test well there next year.
He said that, if any gas was found, it was possible that Statoil could use the controversial Corrib gas pipeline being built by Shell to transport it.
Statoil co-owns the exploration rights to the two areas it plans to explore with Shell but, unlike with the Corrib gas project, it is the senior partner and will be solely responsible for the exploration work.
Although the two companies have held one of the areas since 1994, they secured the right to explore another area last year. The two areas have a total area of 1,970 square kilometres, compared to 467 square kilometres for the area that produced the Corrib find.
A test well drilled by Statoil in 2003 in the area secured in 1994 found gas and oil deposits. However, Nielsen said the risks involved in the project were high and that there was no guarantee that Statoil would find anything.
"There's been a lot of activity off the west coast of Ireland but virtually nothing has been found, " he said. "Our view is that we have a fair chance."
Nielsen said if gas was found in commercial quantities, it would be at least five years before Statoil would be in a position to exploit it.
A spokeswoman for Shell declined to comment on the possibility of Statoil using the Corrib gas pipeline to transport any gas finds. She said it was too early to make any predictions or plans.
"Seismic surveys and exploration drilling would need to be carried out first in order to understand the field make-up and to find out whether there are hydrocarbons present, " she said.