Russian oil firm set to drill in Cuban waters
* Zarubezhneft latest oil firm to try Cuba offshore
* Cuba says offshore may have 20 billion barrels of oil
* Other drillers have come up empty in Cuban waters
HAVANA, Dec 16 (Reuters) - Russian state-owned oil company Zarubezhneft
is expected to start drilling Cuba's latest offshore well soon in the
latest effort to find oil in waters off the communist country's northern
coast, state media said.
The Norwegian-owned Songa Mercur drilling rig will be used "in the
coming days," the weekend reports said, to explore shallower, coastal
shelf waters near Cayo Santa Maria, about 200 miles (320 km) east of Havana.
The rig arrived in Cuba in mid-November (Xetra: A0Z24E - news) from
Trinidad and Tobago where it was refitted with non-U.S. equipment to
comply with technology limits imposed by the longstanding U.S. trade
embargo against Cuba.
Zarubezhneft officials have said the field, which they will explore for
the next six months or so, may hold up to 200 million barrels of oil.
Cuba believes its top oil prospects lie in deeper waters, but for now,
the Russian company's exploration work is Cuba's best hope at tapping
into fields the Caribbean country says may hold 20 billion barrels of oil.
The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated a more modest 5 billion barrels
in the area.
Three wells drilled earlier this year near Havana and further west - all
in waters more than a mile (1.6 km) deep - were unsuccessful, a big blow
to the island's hopes of achieving energy independence.
Cuba currently gets most of its oil from Venezuela in a generous barter
deal that is looking more precarious recently with the illness of
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Cuba's top ally.
Chavez is recovering in Havana from his fourth cancer-related surgery,
with unknown prospects for his health and political future.
The three earlier wells were drilled with the Scarabeo 9, a newly-built
rig owned by Italian oil service company Saipem (Other OTC: SAPMF.PK -
news) that is capable of exploring in 12,000 feet (3,650 meters) of water.
Spanish energy giant Repsol drilled the first well, followed by
Malaysia's Petronas and Venezuela's PDVSA .
The Scarabeo 9 left Cuba on Nov. 14, headed to West Africa.
The Songa Mercur, owned by Songa Offshore (Other OTC: SGAZF.PK - news) ,
can operate in water up to 1,200 feet (365 meters). (Reporting by Jeff
Franks, Editing by G Crosse)