Spanish oil giant Repsol YPF recently announced that its exploratory drilling efforts in "ultra-deep" waters off the coast of Cuba were unsuccessful.
To drill the test well, Repsol leased the massive Chinese-built Scarabeo 9 drilling rig from Sapiem, an Italian company. The embargo has pretty much blocked U.S. companies from getting in on any of the lucrative action.
Satellite images provided by SkyTruth last month showed that the rig was drilling in the Florida Straits, about 17 miles off the coast of Havana. But now that Repsol came up dry, the rig is slated to move west, where companies from Malaysia and Russia await their chance to strike it rich in Castro's waters.
"I expect we'll see continuous drilling activity for some time to come," says John Amos, president of SkyTruth. "I think it's clear that once you have a big, deep-water-capable rig working the area, it's going to be booked."
Amos says that although the blocks of offshore land leased out to the oil companies follow a systematic grid pattern, drilling operations will not.
"It's geology that's going to dictate the pattern of drilling," Amos says. "Each lease holder has its own team of geologists and, to some extent, their own theories about what makes an attractive target."
Amos' organization uses data from radar imaging satellites and other tools to track environmental hazards throughout the world. The drilling operations off Cuba are concerning because the embargo and strained relations between the U.S. and Cuba could severely hamper response efforts to an environmental catastrophe.
The Scarabeo 9 rig is now expected to move 100 miles west-southwest, where Malaysian company Petronas and Russia's Gazprom will drill. From there, the rig will head to the western tip of Cuba, where a Venezuelan firm is expected to lead efforts on a third exploratory well.
SkyTruth and similar groups will try to track the precise locations of the rig , but they encountered a minor setback recently when a radar satellite operated by the European Space Agency stopped working. The groups used images from the satellite to track the first rig, but Amos says he's got a few other tools at his disposal.
"[The satellite] was 10 years old, and it just stopped talking a few weeks ago," he says. "The U.S., to my chagrin, doesn't operate any civilian radar imaging satellites. For some reason, we've decided that we don't want to build and launch public radar imaging satellites."
The U.S. Geologic Survey estimates that there could be 5 billion barrels of oil in Cuban waters. Cuban officials say there could be 20 billion.
Clearly there's enough to attract oil firms from around the world.
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