After approval from United States authorities, offshore oil drilling has begun off Cuba, officials in Havana and the U.S. said.
The U.S. Coast Guard and environmental safety officials said they inspected and approved the drilling platform under an unusual arrangement designed to allay concerns about a possible spill that could foul the U.S. coastline.
U.S. officials said personnel from the Coast Guard and the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) inspected the Scarabeo-9 platform off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago.
“The review is consistent with U.S. efforts to minimize the possibility of a major oil spill, which would hurt U.S. economic and environmental interests,” the U.S. Interior Department said.
Jorge Piñon, visiting research fellow at the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, said the Scarabeo 9 giant, semi-submersible rig finished its months-long trek from China and is now visible from the shores of Havana, Cuba.
He said the Spanish energy company, Repsol, is conducting the drilling.
U.S. officials said Repsol is the first of several international companies that will use the Scarabeo 9 to look for oil in the Florida Straits.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates about five billion barrels of oil sit under the ocean floor between the U.S. and Cuba.
The Interior Department said inspectors “reviewed vessel construction, drilling equipment, and safety systems – including lifesaving and firefighting equipment, emergency generators, dynamic positioning systems, machinery spaces, and the blowout preventer.
“The review compared the vessel with applicable international safety and security standards as well as U.S. standards for drilling units operating in the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf,” it said.
“Personnel found the vessel to generally comply with existing international and U.S. standards by which Repsol has pledged to abide,” it added.
Cuba’s plans to drill for oil in deep waters off its northwestern coast have sparked fears among some environmentalists and some U.S. Congress members that oil spilled in Cuban waters could reach U.S. waters and coastlines.
The accident last year at the Deepwater Horizon, an offshore drilling rig similar to the Scarabeo platform, killed 11 workers and spilled hundreds of millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.
Repsol has contracted with the Cuban government for the right to explore in a section of the Straits of Florida that is generally deeper than the area where the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank.