* Rig used to drill three wells, all unsuccessful
* Cuba says may have 20 billion barrels offshore
* U.S. embargo makes it difficult to get rigs for Cuba
By Jeff Franks
HAVANA, Nov 14 The Scarabeo 9, a Chinese-built
offshore drilling rig that Cuba hoped would open a new era of
oil production, sailed away from the island on Wednesday, taking
with it the communist country's near-term dreams of energy
The massive, multi-colored rig, owned by Italian oil
services company Saipem, could be seen from Havana
heading east through the blue waters of the Florida Straits en
route, industry sources said, to West Africa.
It may be years before Cuba sees another rig like it.
The Scarabeo 9, designed to operate in water up 12,000 feet
deep (3,650 meters), was used to drill three wells, all in more
than a mile (1.6 km) of water off Cuba's north and west coasts -
and all unsuccessful.
Cuba had hoped to tap into deepwater offshore fields it
says may hold 20 billion barrels of oil and end its dependence
on socialist ally Venezuela, which ships the Caribbean island
115,000 barrels of petroleum a day in an oil-for-services deal.
A consortium led by Spanish oil giant Repsol,
which contracted the Scarabeo 9 from Saipem, hit the first dry
hole last spring. That was followed by unsuccessful wells by
Malaysia's Petronas in partnership with Russia's Gazprom Neft,
and by Venezuela's state-owned PDVSA.
Little is known about the PDVSA well, but Repsol and
Petronas both encountered very hard rock that slowed drilling
and, in Petronas' case, made it impossible to produce
hydrocarbons that were found.
The Malaysian firm is continuing to do three-dimensional
seismic work searching for reservoirs of oil, but Repsol is
leaving the island after 12 years.
Using a different rig, it drilled Cuba's first offshore well
in 2004, where it said it found oil, but the find was not
NO IMMINENT DRILLING PLANS
Other companies including Angola's Sonangol, India's ONGC
and Petrovietnam hold offshore exploration leases in Cuba, but
none are known to have any imminent drilling plans.
Jorge Pinon, a Cuba oil expert at the University of Texas in
Austin, said it could be a decade or more before anyone takes
another chance on Cuba's deepwater fields.
"This deal is done. It's going to take a long time before
the next one," he said. "You could even be looking at 15 to 20
years if you put it all together."
He said the difficult geology encountered by Repsol and
Petronas is discouraging, as is the fact that companies must
pass through the crucible of long-hostile U.S.-Cuba relations.
The five-decade-long U.S. trade embargo against the island
90 miles (145 km) away makes it difficult to find a suitable
drilling rig for Cuba. Would-be drillers face political pressure
from U.S. opponents of the Cuban government.
"It's a difficult, tendentious process. There are a lot of
other places in the world today where oil companies can go to
explore - Brazil, Angola, the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, for example -
so Cuba has lost its place in the pecking order," Pinon said.
Cuba's next best hope now lies with Russia's Zarubezhneft,
which soon will begin drilling in shallower water about 200
miles (320 km) east of Havana.
It has contracted the Songa Mercur rig from Cypress-based
Songa Offshore, which can drill in water up to 1,200 feet deep
The rig has been in Trinidad and Tobago being refitted with
non-U.S. equipment to meet technology limitations imposed by the