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 semisubmersible rig that is 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 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, where he was one of 20 Cuban scientists who met with scientists from the United States and Mexico to complete 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 United States 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 has 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.
Barreras said he isn't worried about the ecological effects of offshore drilling. "The Cuban environmental framework is very progressive," he said.
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 United States.