Rig has arrived; offshore oil drilling begins

Residents of Havana could see the Scarabeo 9 drilling platform with their bare eyes Thursday morning, as the rig was floating by the capital westward, to its first exploratory site in Cuban waters 22 miles northwest of Havana.

A consortium led by Repsol YPF is expected to begin exploratory drilling as early as this weekend in one of six blocks it has contracted near the U.S.-Cuba maritime border. The Italian-owned Scarabeo 9 was built in China and Singapore, to comply with U.S. sanctions that do not allow more than 10 percent U.S. content; one crucial component, the blowout preventer, is U.S.-made. 

The platform is expected to perform at least one, maybe two, drills for the Repsol consortium, and at least three additional drills in Cuban waters through 2013. A consortium led by Malaysian state company Petronas will use the rig after Repsol completes its first drill. Depending on the outcome of the initial perforation, Repsol might decide to perform a second drill, after Petronas’.

“The second one is contingent to the result of the first one,” Repsol exploration director Marcos Mozetic said early last year. “Since we have another operator drilling another well in Cuba in between, we will be able to have time to decide and factor in the input of the first well.”

According to Manuel Marrero Faz, a consultant and principal oil expert at the Ministry of Basic Industries, in recent years foreign oil companies have identified more than 20 prospects for commercially viable deposits offshore.

A major oil find could be an economic and political game changer, turning cash-starved Cuba into an energy exporter and reducing the impact of the U.S. embargo. During a previous exploratory drill in the same area in 2004, Repsol found high-quality oil but not in commercially viable quantities.

Meanwhile, Cuba’s official media are taking notice. Reporting about U.S. environmental concerns and a recent inspection of the rig by U.S. Coast Guard experts in Trinidad and Tobago, the Cubadebate Website posted photos of Scarabeo 9, as seen from the Malecón seaside boulevard in Havana. 

“Scarabeo 9 is located off the Malecón in Havana, followed by a flock of birds attacted by the feast of fishes it leaves in its path,” Cubadebate wrote. 

Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranked Democrat in the U.S. Senate, was in Havana this week, among others to talk about oil safety issues.

Avoiding direct bilateral contact, the Obama Administration will continue to work on drilling safety with Cuba through an international forum, the Department of the Interior said in a press statement. 

“The United States is participating in multilateral discussions with the Bahamas, Cuba, Jamaica and Mexico on a broad range of issues, including drilling safety, ocean modeling, and oil spill preparedness and response,” said the press release, issued to report the completion of a U.S. inspection of the rig. 

On Dec. 7-9, U.S. and Cuban officials participated in a meeting of the Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Information and Training Center (REMPEITC) in Nassau, Bahamas. The participants talked about regional cooperation in preventive regulatory frameworks, safety standards for drilling platforms, and best practices in oil spill containment. A next REMPEITC meeting is expected for late February.

The announcement came as personnel from Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and the U.S. Coast Guard completed an inspection of the Scarabeo 9 oil rig on Jan. 9, as it was anchored off Trinidad and Tobago. The review followed an invitation from the rig’s operator, Repsol, before it will move to Cuban waters to begin exploratory drilling.

The U.S. inspectors reviewed vessel construction, drilling equipment, and safety systems, including lifesaving and firefighting equipment, emergency generators, dynamic positioning systems, machinery spaces, and the blowout preventer.

“U.S. personnel found the vessel to generally comply with existing international and U.S. standards by which Repsol has pledged to abide,” the BSEE statement said.

The Florida Coast Guard sectors Jacksonville, Miami, Key West and St. Petersburg are also updating area contingency plans, “to ensure readiness to respond to any potential oil spills in international waters that could potentially affect U.S. waters and coastline,” the BSEE statement said.

In addition, the Coast Guard’s Seventh District, headquartered in Miami, is overseeing work on an Offshore Drill Response Plan and Regional Contingency Plan that focuses on response strategies and tactics to combat a spill at sea. More than 80 federal, State of Florida, Florida coastal county and maritime industry representatives held a table-top exercise on Nov. 18, according to BSEE.

“The exercise allowed participants to discuss sensitive environmental areas, planning strategies, likely issues and response coordination principles that responders would face, as well as gather additional information to use in future planning,” the statement said.

Washington has refused to allow a general exemption for U.S. oil spill prevention and response companies from the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Repsol controls six blocks (orange) just north of Havana
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