SARASOTA — Cuba may be poised to begin offshore drilling for oil and gas as soon as next year, according to some of those attending a tri-national conference on marine issues here.
“They will begin drilling, I think, within the next year,” said Wayne Smith, who served in the foreign service in Cuba during the Carter and Reagan administrations, and now works for the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C. He is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University.
“It’s good for Cuba,” Smith added during an interview at a break in the conference at Mote Marine Laboratory. “Let’s hope the Cubans are more careful about their drilling practices than we were.”
The island nation about 90 miles from Florida’s tip already has oil wells on land, but offshore exploration and drilling for oil and natural gas will be new, scientists said.
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The conference, the Tri-national Initiative for Marine Science and Conservation of the Gulf of Mexico and Western Caribbean, focused not on oil drilling, but on finalizing a long-term marine mutual research and conservation plan for the United States, Mexico and Cuba.
It continues today with a program addressing ecosystem-wide conservation for animals like sharks and sea turtles, along with discussion of marine-protected areas, coral reefs, fisheries and other topics.
One session did address the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster: It was titled “BP Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Disaster: Lessons and Implications for Our Tri-national Work.”
In interviews with the Bradenton Herald, many of the delegates appeared to be well-acquainted with Cuba’s energy development plans, which entail leasing offshore sites to international oil companies. U.S. companies are prohibited from participating, due to a long-standing economic embargo of the Communist nation.
“It’s still in the exploratory phase, but it’s no doubt it’ll be significant,” said David Guggenheim, moderator of the conference. “It will generate badly needed revenue and energy independence.”
Guggenheim said the U.S. government had granted visas to 20 Cuban delegates attending the marine conference, which he hoped might encourage at least a conversation on how Cuba, the United States and Mexico might work together on issues of such great importance.
He said it was unusual for so many to be allowed in the United States at one time, constituting “a dramatic change at least in this regard.”
The Cuban delegation was headed by Luis Alberto Barreras Cañizo, representing the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment.
“Cuba needs to find its oil, it’s a resource Cuba needs,” he said during an interview.
Asked if the idea of oil and gas drilling off the coast of his country bothered him from an ecological point of view, Barreras replied it did not.
“The Cuban environmental framework is very progressive,” he said through an interpreter.
Jorge R. Piñon, a former president of Amoco Oil Latin America, which merged with BP, was not at the Sarasota conference, but said later in a telephone interview that Cuba had awarded 29 blocks, called concessions, to a group of about seven international oil companies.
Piñon, who is also a visiting research fellow at the Cuban Research Institute at Miami’s Florida International University, said that a submersible oil drilling rig is going through sea trials, and is expected to arrive near Cuba at the end of the year.
“The first quarter next year, we do expect for (Spanish company) Repsol to be drilling about 22 miles north of Havana,” he said.