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No oil drilling for now off Cuba

by Timothy O’Hara, The Key West Citizen, August 16, 2014

Street in Havana, CubaFlorida Keys residents concerned about oil exploration off Cuba can breathe easier as plans for drilling have been put on hold.

Two experts on Cuban politics and oil exploration confirmed media reports that Cuba has shifted its focus away from offshore oil exploration, and instead is concentrating on renewable sources of energy and improving output from onshore wells.

A lack of interest by foreign companies for further deepwater exploration prompted the change, Reuters reported this week.

Texas-based oil and energy consultant Jorge Pinon and Dan Whittle, Cuba program director for the Environmental Defense Fund, confirmed the reports.

“I don’t see anything happening in at least the next 12 months,” Pinon said.

Billy Causey, former Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary superintendent and National Sanctuary Program regional director, said he welcomed Cuba’s move away from offshore oil, not only because “it gives us a lot less to be concerned about,” but it could show what could be done with renewable energy on a large scale.

“I find that exciting, a race for energy,” Causey said. “It’s not surprising because Cubans are so resourceful.” The delay could give the United States and Cuba time to mend relationships, and work on joint safety and environmental regulations for offshore oil drilling.

“Cuba is going to try again to drill offshore for oil,” Pinon said. “We need to sit down with them and figure out how to handle a catastrophic event like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We need a strategy in place. The (U.S.) Coast Guard must be clear about what to do. It is in the best interest of the Keys and Florida to be prepared.”

Whittle agreed that drilling is not totally off the table.

“It’s good news for the Keys because it buys time,” he said of the development. “It gives more time for dialogue, and more time for a change in U.S. policy. We do have some breathing room. It’s a window of opportunity. It’s a huge new opportunity to develop renewable energy.”

Pinon and Causey cited the work of former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who traveled to Cuba earlier this year to promote reopening the dialogue with Cuba because of concerns about spills from oil exploration.

Graham, who was cochairman of the 2010 national commission on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, wants to relax the United States’ embargo that restricts trade between the two countries. He is calling for the trade of equipment and technology that would make drilling there safer.

“Sen. Graham was down there talking to them about the equipment that has been put in place since Deepwater Horizon,” Causey said. “There are things that we can share that would make this a lot safer.”

Cuba first began looking for oil off its coast in 2012, when the Spanish oil company Repsol began drilling an exploratory well off an area known as El Jaguey, which is about 80 miles from Key West. Several other companies have agreements with Cuba to drill in Cuban waters in other areas in the Florida Straits.

But not enough oil has been found off Cuba to warrant any large-scale drilling, according to officials.

Oil companies, including those from China and Russia, have little incentive to drill off Cuba and are delaying their efforts, because of so much oil readily available around the world, Reuters reported. The trade embargo is further complicating drilling plans.

Last month, Russia’s state-run Rosneft and the China National Petroleum Company separately agreed to help Cuba extract more oil along a 200-mile stretch of the northern coast from Havana to Villa Clara, but did not contract for deepwater exploration, Reuters reported.

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