People who follow the oil industry are closing watching a pair of news items, both involving drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

Earlier this week, the Obama administration said Noble Energy (NBL) could restart drilling operations at its Santiago well in the Gulf. The announcement will make Noble the first company to resume drilling in the region since last April's BP (BP) Deepwater Horizon disaster -- and the first since the moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf was lifted last October.

The other bit of news is that a semi-submersible oil rig, originally due to arrive in Cuban waters this month, will reportedly be delayed until late summer.

Working Around U.S. Trade Embargo


The rig is a multinational project: owned by an Italian oil service group, constructed by a Chinese firm and funded by a consortium led by the Spanish energy company Repsol (REP). The delay is being blamed on technical problems -- but "part of the delays were originally that the [rig's] works were going to have more than 10% of U.S. technology, which is not acceptable to the U.S.," says Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

That 10% figure is a part of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, now in its sixth decade. But the possibility of a good-size oil find off the Cuban coast could be a major game-changer for both Havana and Washington.

A 2004 assessment by the U.S. Geological Survey reported that about 4.6 billion barrels of oil -- as well as substantial deposits of natural gas -- might lie trapped in the sediment just north of Cuba.

Some preliminary explorations of the site have shown promise, but the oil deposit is hardly a sure thing -- especially since it's in water even deeper than the BP Deepwater Horizon site. But given present concerns over oil supplies, "the idea is to eventually export [oil] in the area or for Cuban consumption," says Arturo Lopez-Levy, a former political analyst for the Cuban government and now a research associate at the University of Denver.

Transitioning From Oil Importer to Exporter


"It could create a significant change in Cuba's economic wherewithal," says Benjamin-Alvarado, who recently co-authored a book on Cuba's energy sector. He notes Cuba currently produces about 90,000 barrels of oil daily, or about half of its overall needs -- with the rest being imported from Venezuela. But with the possibility of Cuba transitioning from an oil importer to a modest exporter, there's been a dramatic increase in foreign direct investment in Cuba in recent years -- as international companies invest in the country's oil production infrastructure.

"About 88% of all the oil reserves in the world are already spoken for," Benjamin-Alvarado says. "Only 11% are open and available for purchase by the international oil companies." With that in mind, he says, "oil would solidify Castro's effort to remain viable with the Cuban people, to satisfy their material needs. The Cuban people would take the trade-off. But over the course of 10 to 15 years, that may change."

There are also some practical concerns about possibly having Cuban oil wells operating less than 90 miles from the Florida coast. A recent report by advocates for more U.S. engagement with Cuba suggests the U.S. government should start direct talks with Havana over energy and environmental issues -- to prevent any future Deepwater Horizon-like spills in the Gulf.

That suggestion is getting a lot of push-back from anti-Castro groups in Florida, as well as state lawmakers. But according to the report, by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, the current trade embargo "restricts Cuba's access to knowledge and associations that would help it plan for or react to a spill. The embargo prevents meaningful participation by U.S. private sector firms in planning for reaction, containment or remediation efforts."

"The extent to which the U.S. can get on the stick and put forth a working agreement on environmental drilling will be very important, to be able to monitor very closely what the Cubans will be doing," says Benjamin-Alvarado. "This won't solve our energy problem, but it gives the U.S. an opportunity to have an imprint in the direction of the energy developments that are presently at play in Cuba."


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