WASHINGTON — Cuba is expected to begin drilling offshore for oil and gas as soon as next year in waters deeper than those the Deepwater Horizon rig was drilling in when it exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April.
The Spanish energy company, Repsol, which drilled an exploratory well in 2004 off the coast near Havana, has contracted to drill the first of several exploratory wells with a semi-submersible rig that's expected to arrive in Cuba at the end of the year, said Jorge Pinon, an energy expert and visiting research fellow at the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
He said the rig is expected to begin drilling in 5,600 feet of water about 22 miles north of Havana; and 65 miles south of Florida's Marquesas Keys. The oil reservoir is thought to lie 13,000 feet below the seafloor. The Deepwater Horizon rig was drilling in about 5,000 feet of water when it exploded on April 20, touching off the oil spill that fixated the Gulf region throughout the spring and summer.
Luis Alberto Barreras Canizo, of Cuba's Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment, confirmed the drilling plans in an interview this week in Sarasota, Fla., where he was one of 20 Cuban scientists who met with scientists from the U.S. and Mexico to finalize a long-term marine research and conservation plan for the three countries.
"Cuba needs to find its oil. It's a resource Cuba needs," Barreras said.
Environmentalists said the prospect of rigs just miles from Florida could intensify pressure for the U.S. to engage in talks with its Cold War antagonist to prevent ecological damage.
"We have a selfish interest in talking with Cuba," said David Guggenheim, a conference organizer and senior fellow at The Ocean Foundation in Washington. "At a minimum, you need a good Rolodex."
Guggenheim, who's worked on marine research and conservation issues with Cuba for nearly a decade and helped that country track the trajectory of the Deepwater Horizon spill, said computer modeling shows that oil from a spill off Cuba's coast could end up in U.S. waters — chiefly the Florida Keys and the east coast of Florida.
"The Gulf isn't going to respect any boundaries when it comes to oil spills," Guggenheim said.
Barreras said he isn't worried about the ecological affects of offshore drilling. "The Cuban environmental framework is very progressive," he said.
Pinon said, however, that an effective response to a spill might be delayed by the need for U.S. companies to apply to the Treasury Department for permission to work in Cuban waters, but State Department spokesman Charles Luoma-Overstreet said U.S. companies could apply for permits now to do such work.
"We would expect that any company engaged in oil exploration activities to have adequate safeguards in place to prevent oil spills or other incidents," he said. "U.S. companies can be licensed . . . to provide oil spill prevention and containment support related to operations in Cuba."
Daniel Whittle, the Cuba program director for the Environmental Defense Fund, who recently returned from the island, said Cuban government officials are "moving forward as quickly as possible" on securing domestic oil production.
Cuba imports most of its oil and gas from Venezuela, and Whittle said its own source would be critical to its economy.
He said the country is "taking a very close look at the lessons learned from the BP oil spill. I can say they're determined to do it right. The international consequences of doing it wrong are all something they'd like to avoid."
Pinon said the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba had complicated Cuba's efforts to secure a drilling rig. Vessels with more than 10 percent U.S. parts are barred from operating in Cuba.
Repsol has hired an Italian rig, the Scarabeo 9, with a 200-member crew, to do the job, but the rig's blowout preventer, a critical piece of safety equipment that failed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion, was manufactured in the U.S. The Scarabeo 9 is expected to drill as many as nine other wells off Cuba's coast.
Florida lawmakers have sought — unsuccessfully — to squash Cuba's efforts.
When news reports of a potential deal with Repsol emerged in June, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., asked the Obama administration to withdraw from a 1977 Maritime Boundary Agreement with Cuba to pressure its government. National Security Adviser James Jones, however, said withdrawal "would have no discernible effect" on the Cuban government and could create further boundary claim disputes for the U.S.
Nelson tried a similar approach with the Bush administration in 2007 when Cuba was talking to Brazil about oil exploration. The Bush administration also turned him down.
Guggenheim said he's encouraged that the State Department had granted visas to 20 Cuban delegates to attend the marine and conservation conference at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota — it was the highest number ever issued for such a conference. The attendees discussed a tri-national plan of action for protection of coral reefs, sea turtles, fish, sharks and other marine life.
"We can't protect our own waters without working closely with Mexico and Cuba," he said.
(Clark reported from Washington; Kennedy, of the Bradenton Herald, reported from Sarasota, Fla.)
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