Will Cuban Oil Find Break U.S. Embargo?
By TODD LEWAN
The Associated Press
Saturday, July 29, 2006; 12:27 PM
MIAMI — Some facts about America’s trade embargo with Cuba:
_ It’s been U.S. policy since 1961.
_ It has yet to loosen Fidel Castro’s grip on power.
_ It has cost America little strategically or economically.
Until now, that is.
From here on out, say a growing chorus of experts, America will pay a
price for maintaining its 45-year trade ban with the communist nation _
a strategic and economic price that will have negative repercussions for
the United States in the decades to come.
What has changed the equation?
To be more specific, recent, sizable discoveries of it in the North Cuba
Basin _ deep-water fields that have already drawn the interest of
companies from China, India, Norway, Spain, Canada, Venezuela and Brazil.
This, in turn, has reheated debate in the U.S. Congress and the
Cuban-American community on an old question:
Has the time finally come to shelve the embargo _ given America’s need
for more sources of crude at a time of rising gas prices, soaring global
demand and the outbreak of war in the Middle East?
Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, an expert on Cuba energy matters and a
political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, says
America’s thirst for oil will soon force a fundamental change in
Washington’s relations with Havana.
“I’ve always argued that we would keep the Cuban embargo in place until
we got to the point where it started to cost us something.” Today, he
adds, “we’re almost there.”
Says Phil Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a think
tank in Arlington, Va., that defends limited government and free trade,
and a Cuba expert: “If Cuba discovers a lot of oil and becomes an oil
exporter, the embargo almost becomes an absurdity.”
Kirby Jones, founder and president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association in
Washington, D.C., which has long sought an end to the trade ban, says
the reality of Cuba as an oil producer makes the embargo too costly a
policy to keep.
“Our choice is: Are we going to let those other countries take that oil?
Or are we going to look at our strategic interests and recognize that
very close to our shores is a substantial quantity of oil that is going
to be exploited?”
Cuba has been oil hunting, not always successfully, for decades.
With Soviet help, it discovered the Varadero Oil Field in 1971. This
reservoir, within 5 miles of Cuba’s northern coast, today yields about
40 percent of Cuba’s total production _ roughly 75,000 barrels a day of
poor-quality, heavy, sour crude.
In July 2004, however, the Spanish oil company Repsol-YPF, in
partnership with Cuba’s state oil company, CUPET, identified five fields
it classified as “high-quality” in the deep water of the Florida
Straits, 20 miles northeast of Havana.
Seven months later, a report by the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed it:
The North Cuba Basin held a substantial quantity of oil _ 4.6 billion to
9.3 billion barrels of crude and 9.8 trillion to 21.8 trillion cubic
feet of natural gas. Cuba wasted no time, dividing the 74,000 square
mile (120,000 square kilometer) area into 59 exploration blocks, and
then welcoming foreign oil conglomerates with offers of
Oil companies from China and Canada, already prospecting for oil along
Cuba’s coast, began talks with Cuban energy officials about investments
in deep-water operations.
Then, in May, Spain’s Repsol-YPF announced it was partnering with
India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corp., and Norsk Hydro ASA of Norway to
explore for oil and gas in six of the 59 deep-water blocks along Cuba’s
maritime border with the United States. (Sherritt International Corp.,
the Canadian oil company, has acquired exploration rights in four of the
That raised the eyebrows of many an oil executive, says Jorge Pinon, a
former senior executive with Amoco Oil and a research associate at the
Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.
Norsk and ONGC are among a select group of companies with deep-water
know-how and technology, so when they signed on with the Spanish,
“everyone else said, ‘Maybe we better take a look at Cuba again.'”
The U.S. Congress certainly has.
In May, with much fanfare, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Sen. Larry
Craig, R-Idaho, introduced twin bills to the House and Senate that would
exempt Big Oil from the embargo.
Before introducing his legislation, Craig told a reporter that
“prohibition on trade with Cuba has accomplished just about zero.”
Ominously, he added: “China, as we speak, has a drilling rig off the
coast of Cuba.” (The senator failed to mention that the Chinese are
working in shallow water near Cuba’s shore, and possess neither the
technology nor the expertise to tap Cuba’s promising deep-water reserves.)
Regardless, the bills represent the best chance yet to “punch a big hole
into the embargo,” says Johannes Werner, editor of Cuba Trade &
Investment News, published in Sarasota, Fla.
That scenario raises the hackles of the conservative, and highly
influential, Cuban-American voting lobby of south Florida _ not exactly
what President Bush, or his brother, Jeb, who occupies the governor’s
mansion in Florida, would prefer three months before midterm elections.
Says Alfredo Mesa, executive director of the Cuban American National
Foundation in Miami: “Those who would advocate for … allowing U.S.
companies to drill off Cuba lose sight of how that would damage our
ability to press the Cuban government on other issues, such as human
Environmentalists are also squarely set against oil-industry access to
Cuba, though for different reasons. Oil spills _ even routine toxic
pollution from drilling _ could pollute the Everglades and Florida’s
most economically important beaches, they say, and wreck the state’s
Thanks to Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Rep. Jim Davis, D-Fla., they,
too, have measures in Congress for which to cheer: twin bills that would
deny U.S. visas to executives of foreign companies that drill for oil in
Nelson’s bill would undo a 1977 maritime boundary agreement between the
countries that bisects the Straits of Florida and allows Cuba to perform
commercial activities (e.g., oil drilling) near the Florida Keys.
It’s not clear how this could keep the Cubans from exploiting waters
closer to their shores than America’s. One semiofficial response from
Cuba, an editorial by the state-run Prensa Latina newswire, called the
How likely is it that Congress will act?
“If the oil industry continues to sit on the fence as it has been _ not
too likely, especially with this administration and Congress,” says
Werner, editor of the Cuba trade newsletter. “But there are elections in
November, which could change the whole equation.”
Peters, of the Lexington Institute, agrees. “I think if you call (oil
companies) up and ask them, ‘What is your position on this?’ they’d say
yes, we’re behind an exemption in the embargo. But I’m not sure if they
would get behind it in a major way yet.”
In response to queries from The Associated Press, the American Petroleum
Institute in Washington, D.C., the industry’s lobbying arm, issued this
“We cannot speak to individual interest in Cuba, but we can say that API
members are more focused on expanding access on the U.S. portion of the
outer continental shelf, which is much closer to the existing pipeline
network and where they have more information about oil and natural gas
All of this is still somewhat premature, says Pinon, the former oil
executive and research associate. “We are still three to five years away
from commercializing any of those Cuban reserves.”
There is at least an 18-month backlog on the leasing of deep-water rigs,
he says, and “crude oil is worth zero if you can’t move it or process
it. Even if they find the oil, what are they going to do with it?”
Benjamin-Alvarado, a regular visitor to Cuba who has been following that
nation’s energy development for 15 years, concurs. Cuba, he says, needs
help “downstreaming” _ upgrading its ports, refineries and maintenance
Already, though, Venezuela’s state oil monopoly, PDVSA, has signed a
$100 million deal to revamp Cuba’s Cienfuegos refinery, a Russian relic
from Cold-War days, and to increase oil storage capacity at the Port of
“Every day the United States puts off making the path into Cuba, that
window of opportunity closes a little more,” says Benjamin-Alvarado.
Once Cuba gets to the platform stage of deep-water drilling, he says,
“the Americans are going to be left out.”