By Charlie Zhu and Alberto Sisto
HONG KONG/MILAN, March 7 (Reuters) - China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) is in talks to buy a 10 to 20 percent stake in Italian oil company Eni SpA's giant Mozambique gas field according to an Italian government source, a deal that could be worth as much as $3.75 billion.
Eni, the operator of the field with a 70 percent stake, has said it is looking to bring in partners to help fund the estimated $50 billion it will take to bring the African country's offshore Area 4 field to production.
Earlier on Thursday, another person familiar with the matter said investment banks had approached CNPC about buying a stake.
"CNPC is one of several oil companies that have been contacted," said the person who spoke earlier. The talks were first revealed in a Bloomberg story.
Officials with CNPC, parent of Hong Kong and New York-listed PetroChina were unavailable for comment. Eni declined to comment.
The gas field is in the same reservoir as a field owned by U.S. explorer Anadarko Petroleum Corp and several other investors. Anadarko and Indian tycoon Venugopal Dhoot are selling a 20 percent stake in the field known as Area 1.
Eni and Anadarko have had discussions with the Mozambique government about unifying the fields.
The two gas fields have pushed East Africa into the limelight as a new hydrocarbon region, attracting the interest of major oil firms.
Last year, Thai state oil company PTT Exploration and Production PCL trumped Royal Dutch Shell Plc in a hotly contested battle for Cove Energy Plc and its 8.5 percent of the Anadarko field.
The $1.9 billion price tag for Cove implies a 20 percent stake in Area 1 could fetch about $4.5 billion. Area 4 is estimated to be about five sixths the size of Area 1, making a 20 percent stake worth around $3.75 billion.
However, experts have since said PTT paid too much and Shell has said it walked away because the price got too high.
Anadarko is widely seen as needing one of the top LNG producers like Shell in its project, not only for financial reasons, but also for its expertise. Eni, however, is said to be keen to stay as operator. China, and therefore state-backed CNPC itself, is also most likely to be the main customer for the gas.
"Having a gas buyer on board would be better, since having oil companies in there can cause trouble," said a third source with knowledge of Eni's business. "Look at Kashagan. There are too many roosters in the henhouse there and it's caused all sorts of problems."
Eni was the operator of the giant Kashagan field in Kazakhstan until 2008 and is now in charge of the first phase. Kashagan is shared by a group of top oil companies but has been beset by delays and other problems.