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Unused oil rigs sit in the Gulf of Mexico near Port Fourchon, Louisiana August 11, 2010.Reuters/Lee Celano

Exxon Mobil Corp. has made two big new oil discoveries and a natural gas find in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, news that underscores the importance of the prolific basin to U.S. crude output.

Oil and gas exploration in the Gulf was halted by the U.S. government last year after the blowout at BP PLC 's Macondo well, and activity in the Gulf remains at levels far below those seen before the oil spill.

Exxon characterized the find, announced on Wednesday, as one of the largest in the last decade and estimated the wells could produce about 700 million barrels of oil equivalent.

Exxon shares rose 1.5 per cent in afternoon trading.

The discoveries are the company's first in the Gulf since the government moratorium was lifted. The Irving, Texas, company was on the verge of drilling its Hadrian prospect when the government suspended deepwater activity.

"(The discovery) speaks to the fact that there are resources in the Gulf and if we have a tax and regulatory environment that will encourage us to find and produce our own domestic oil, the industry will respond," said Mark Routt, an energy industry consultant with KBC Advanced Technologies.

The wells are located in the Keathley Canyon at a water depth of about 2,133 metres, 402 kilometres southwest of New Orleans.

Last month, Noble Energy Inc. said it had made an oil discovery at its Santiago prospect in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico. Noble was the first company to receive a drilling permit from U.S. regulators after the drilling halt.

Exxon owns a 50 per cent interest in the three new wells, which are part-owned by Eni Petroleum U.S., part of Italy's Eni SpA, and Brazil's Petrobras.

Exxon shares rose $1.04 (U.S.) to $81.04 in early afternoon on the New York Stock Exchange. The stock was outperforming a 1 per cent gain in the CBOE index of oil companies.