New oil drilling expected to begin offshore of Cuba at the end of the summer is at least 50 miles farther away from Key West than a well that came up dry in May.
But industry watchers say the drilling sites’ location in the Gulf of Mexico pose more of an environmental threat to the Keys and other coastal areas of the U.S. than did the well that was only 70 miles away from Key West in the Florida Straits.
“National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration models of spill scenarios indicate the obvious: The further west from the Keys, the greater the potential exposure of the Keys and western Florida to oil reaching the U.S. coast. This is much like NOAA’s hurricane prediction cone,” said Lee Hunt, president of the International Association of Drilling Contractors.
Spanish oil company Repsol was the first of several international firms to begin drilling the waters off Cuba for oil on a Chinese-built, Italian-owned giant semi-submersible rig called the Scarabeo 9. The rig was built with less than 10 percent of its parts made in the United States, meaning companies that work on it are not violating the 52-year-old U.S.-imposed trade embargo against Cuba.
The Scarabeo’s pending arrival angered environmentalists and tourism officials who were worried what a massive oil spill would do to coastal states’ environment and economy. It also angered critics of Cuba, who were concerned a big oil find would make the small Communist island a major energy exporter.
But not only did Repsol not find enough oil to continue its $100 million operation, the company also willingly let U.S. inspectors board the rig when it was in Trinidad and Tobago before it arrived in Cuban waters. Repsol also conducted tabletop exercises with U.S. authorities in Trinidad and Tobago on how to coordinate an oil spill response and containment plan in case of an oil well blowout, said Jorge Piñon, a research fellow at the University of Texas’ Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy.
Malaysian company Petronas is now using the rig in partnership with Gazprom, from Russia. That lease is scheduled to end at the end of this month, the Associated Press reported.
But the next company to use the Scarabeo 9 is Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA. PDVSA is a state-owned company run by the government of Hugo Chavez, which has a hostile relationship with the United States.
Piñon said the U.S. is not likely to enjoy the same cooperation with PDVSA as it did when dealing with Repsol. Petronas is also a state-owned company. Piñon doubts members of the U.S. Coast Guard and other federal agencies have the same open line of communication with its representatives as they had with Repsol managers. He also doubts the same types of contingency plans in place between the Coast Guard and Repsol exist with Petronas, or will be made with PDVSA.
“Repsol was a publicly traded company, so we expected them to behave the way they did. Both Petronas and PDVSA are national, state-owned oil companies,” Piñon said. “What role would sovereign immunity play in their response and financial compensation to Florida residents in the event of an oil spill?”
Cuba believes its coastal waters in the Florida Straits and the Gulf of Mexico contain up to 20 billion barrels of oil. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates a much more conservative 5 billion barrels.
Drilling for oil there is particularly risky because wells are believed to be up to 6,000 feet below the ocean. The British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, the worst in U.S. history, happened at 5,000 feet below the ocean surface.
Meanwhile, on the northeastern coast of Cuba, another Russian company, Zarubezhneft, is expected to start drilling for oil in about 1,200 feet of water near the maritime border with the Bahamas. That operation is scheduled to begin in November on a Norwegian-Cypriot-owned rig called the Songa Mercur.