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Cuban offshore oil plans gain momentum

By Shasta Darlington, CNN
  • Cuba quietly planning offshore drilling
  • Seven exploration wells are being considered
  • Chinese rig ordered for exploration effort

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- While the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has sparked debate in America on the merits of deepwater drilling, 90 miles away Cuba's offshore plans are quietly taking shape.

The country aims to drill seven exploration wells in its share of the Gulf of Mexico by 2014, according to American oil experts who recently met with Cuba's state oil monopoly Cupet and regulatory officials.

"Cuba's a sovereign nation and they're going to drill on their shelf waters and in their economic zone," Lee Hunt, the president of the International Association of Drilling Contractors, told CNN.

Spain's largest oil company, Repsol, has ordered a Chinese rig to start exploring in Cuban waters.

"They expect the arrival of the Scarabeo 9 rig sometime around the end of the first quarter next year," Hunt said. "They're going to begin drilling around mid-year 2011."

But that's just the beginning. Cuba has divided its share of the Gulf into

59 blocks but rarely comments on its development plans. Foreign oil companies have leased 21 of them and they are now interested in the Scarabeo 9 rig.

"They're planning, according to the information they provided us, seven wells over the next two to four year period," Hunt said.

The Houston-based IADC represents about 90 percent of drilling companies worldwide.

Cuba currently produces about 60,000 barrels of oil per day from onshore wells. It imports another 115,000 bpd from Venezuela on favorable terms.

The government says it has up to 20 billion barrels of oil in its economic zone, but the U.S. Geological Survey has estimated a smaller 4.6 billion barrels.

In the wake of the Gulf spill, some in Florida are worried about Cuba drilling so close to home.

"If ever there was a wake-up call to say that we should not drill off the beautiful coast of Florida, this is it," Florida Governor Charlie Crist recently told CNN.

But for the IADC, it's time to work together to prevent spills and quickly tackle disasters. Hunt, in Cuba on his first visit, said members were impressed with Cuba's preparedness, but said they would still be hampered by the U.S. trade embargo against the island.

"The biggest liability is one that is imposed by the moratorium in preventing Cupet from accessing and resourcing spill response capabilities from the U.S. Gulf Coast," he said. If a relief well needs to be drilled, it will be difficult for an Asian rig, he added.

The results of a spill could be disastrous for marine life and beaches on both sides of the Florida Straits. Tourism is a major money-maker for both economies.