Human Rights in Cuba

Time To Change

Waiting for help
Waiting for help

Russian for Cuba's oil

Soviet-built 'Songa Mercur' platform boosts Cuba's hopes of oil riches.

And its operators don't seem to care about US trade sanctions.

Nick MiroffJune 28, 2012 06:00

Working on an oil rig in Cuba. The island nation has not had much luck

so far with quests for oil offshore. (Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images)

this story is part of globalpost's continuing coverage of world

business. for more visit our new business page.

HAVANA, Cuba — For 30 years, generous oil subsidies from Moscow kept the

lights on for 's Cuban Revolution. Until the Soviet Union

went kaput.

Now, Russian state oil companies may be coming to Cuba's rescue again.

Oil industry journals reported this week that a Soviet-built,

Norwegian-owned drilling platform is headed for Cuban waters this

summer, under contract with Moscow-based state company Zarubezhneft.

The company has hired the rig, called the Songa Mercur, at a cost of $88

million for nearly a year, with plans to begin drilling in November.

That should be enough time to poke plenty of holes in search of Cuba's

elusive undersea oil fields, which are thought to hold billions of

barrels of crude but have yet to yield a decent strike.

The rig's arrival couldn't come at a better time for the Castro

government and its state oil company, CubaPetroleo. The state firm has

signed multiple contracts in recent years with foreign producers looking

to drill in Cuban waters.

Another drilling platform, the Scarabeo 9, has been working off the

island's north coast this year, but has come up dry, dealing a blow to

Havana's hopes for weaning the island off imported crude.

Cuba currently gets about two-thirds of its fuel from socialist ally

Hugo . But the Venezuelan president has been battling cancer and

must campaign for re-election in October.

The Scarabeo 9 has been Cuba's best hope. The Chinese-built,

Italian-owned rig arrived late last year, opening a gusher of anxieties

in the US. Environmental groups and Florida operators worried

about damage from a potential spill. Anti-Castro lawmakers worried an

oil strike would give the Cuban government a cash windfall.

Repsol, the Spanish oil company that first hired the rig, was the

subject of hearings on Capitol Hill, and the Obama administration made

the unusual move of sending an inspection team to visit the platform

when it stopped in Trinidad en route to Cuban waters.

But the state-of-the-art Scarabeo 9 was made for the Cuba job —

literally. It is the only rig in the world designed specifically to

comply with US trade sanctions against Cuba, which limit the amount of

US technology that can be used in Cuban territory to no more than 10


So far the rig has come up empty in Cubans waters. Having spent more

than $100 million for a dry well and a political headache, Repsol

executives have announced they're pulling out of Cuba.

Scarabeo 9 is now in the hands of Russia's Gazprom Neft, which is

drilling in Cuban waters at another offshore location in partnership

with Malaysia's Petronas. Results may be announced as soon as next month.

More from GlobalPost: Cuba injects Africa with doctor diplomacy

The Songa Mercur will be working much closer to shore. Built in 1989 at

the Soviet Union's Vybord Shipyards, its maximum drilling depth is just

1,200 feet of water, according to the rig's specifications.

Jorge Piñon, an expert on Cuban oil exploration at the of

Texas, said the Songa Mercur was retrofitted and modernized in 2006 in

Galveston, Texas, after it was purchased from a Mexican firm by Norway's

Songa Offshore SE. It's currently working in Malaysia.

Unlike the Scarabeo 9, the Songa Mercur is loaded with US technology,

including five Caterpillar generators, General Electric mud pump motors,

and cementing equipment made by Halliburton. That will likely leave

Russian operator Zarubezhneft in violation of the US' Cuba sanctions,

Piñon said.

Not that there's much the US government can do about it.

"This is a Russian state oil company, and they do not have US assets or

interests to safeguard," said Piñon, a former British Petroleum executive.

"Do you think that Zarubezhneft is going to invite the US Coast Guard

and the Interior Department to board (the Songa Mercur)?" he said. "How

then is [the US] going to validate whether the Songa Mercur meets the


The area where the platform will be drilling is off the coast of Cuba's

Ciego de Avila and Villa Clara provinces, and adjacent to an area that

the Bahamas Petroleum Corporation is also looking to develop, Piñon added.

That location should present less of a threat to US beaches in the event

of a spill, according to Lee Hunt, former president of the Houston-based

International Association of Drilling Contractors.

Shallow water does not eliminate the risk, Hunt said, but ocean currents

in that area would likely keep floating crude away from US shores.

"What has not changed is the need for blowout prevention," said Hunt,

who advocates closer cooperation between the US and Cuba on oil spill

prevention. "The best and safest practices, and preparation for spill

capping, capture, containment and cleanup remain risk factors for Cuba

and the United States."

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Zapata lives
Zapata lives
No place to live
No place to live