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Oil spill: a boon for Cuba?

The Gulf oil spill could mean more drilling off Cuban coast.

dam worker
Louisiana National Guardsman Specialist Anthony Chase of Bogalusa, La., walks back from work putting together a dam to protect from encroaching oil, June 1, 2010. (Sean Gardner/GlobalPost)

HAVANA, Cuba — The worst oil spill in U.S. history may not be such a bad thing for Cuba — assuming that the crude now fouling up the Gulf never reaches the island's shores.

It's an environmental threat that also comes with a potential economic opportunity. Cuba’s untapped offshore reserves are growing increasingly attractive to U.S. oil companies with every gushing barrel into the Gulf, some experts say.

Cuba has 4.6 billion barrels of oil and 9.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in undersea deposits off its northwest coast, according to U.S. Geological Survey estimates, enough to put the country on par with major regional exporters like Colombia and Ecuador. Cuban geologists say there may be four times that amount in vast hydrocarbon pools under Cuban-controlled waters farther out into the Gulf.

The Castro government has already signed deals with nearly a dozen foreign oil companies interested in drilling those waters, including Brazil’s Petrobras, Norway’s Statoil and a unit of India’s ONGC. It has also extended invitations to U.S. oil companies, which are currently barred from doing business with Cuba under the half-century-old trade embargo.

The restrictions have been enforced so zealously that when American oil executives attempted to meet with Cuban officials at a 2006 energy summit in Mexico, the U.S. Treasury Department had the Cuban delegation kicked out of the conference hotel.

But several events in the past few weeks have brought the U.S. oil industry closer to Cuba. For the first time, Treasury officials have given American oil industry representatives permission to travel to Cuba, having denied previous travel requests. Executives from the International Association of Drilling Contractors say they’re now preparing a three-day visit to the island to discuss safety and environmental standards with their Cuban counterparts.

At the same time, Cuba and its foreign partners are moving forward with their own offshore agenda. According to Reuters, Spain’s oil giant REPSOL has contracted for a Chinese-built rig that could begin drilling in Cuban waters later this year. That plan raises new concerns about the possibility of environmental damage to Florida if an accident were to occur on a rig in nearby Cuban waters.

Because of the embargo’s trade restrictions, Cuba would have no access to the U.S.-based companies that respond to oil spill disasters and conduct cleanup operations, according to a recent white paper authored by the drilling contractors association.

“This island nation continues to gear up for serious offshore drilling — including in deep waters in relative proximity to Florida’s coastlines, beaches and marine habitats,” the document warns. “A blowout offshore Cuba could wreak catastrophic environmental consequences on the U.S. far worse than in Cuba itself.”