(Adds details about available exploration rigs)
By Jaime Hamre
CAMARIOCA, Cuba, Oct 21 (Reuters) - Cuba plans to drill exploratory deepwater wells in the Gulf of Mexico by the end of 2016 or beginning of 2017 despite current low oil prices, officials from the state oil monopoly said.
Cuba-Petroleo (Cupet) will drill exploratory wells as deep as 7,000 meters (23,000 ft) in waters of up to 3,000 meters in production sharing contracts with Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA and Angola’s Sonangol.
“We will initiate a drilling campaign at the end of 2016 or the start of 2017,” Osvaldo Lopez, Cupet’s head of exploration, told Reuters on Wednesday.
“The essential goal of the new drilling campaign is at least two deep wells. There could be three. If there is a discovery there certainly will be more than two,” Lopez said on a tour of oil wells with international industry representatives.
Experts believe billions of barrels worth of oil lie beneath the waters off Cuba’s northwest coast, but a host of companies that have drilled over the years have come up dry.
Exploration has long been impeded by the U.S. trade embargo and is further complicated at times of low oil prices such as the present.
Crude oil prices have fallen in half over more than a year and the most recent forecasts project them going lower in 2016.
“We are working with several companies interested in studying the possibilities, but the price of oil makes these processes drag out a bit longer since companies cut their budgets,” Cupet Deputy Director Roberto Suarez told Reuters on Tuesday.
Cupet will also decide among several offers for seismic testing from companies such as France’s CGG SA and Norway’s Spectrum ASA in the next four to five months, Suarez said.
The potential of Cuba’s oil industry has long been a subject of fascination as a possible source of funding for its socialist revolution, especially after the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
Venezuela has since become a benefactor, and interest has sparked anew since the past year’s diplomatic opening with the United States has raised the possibility of U.S. exploration.
For now, the U.S. economic embargo remains in place, but under a relaxation of sanctions that took effect in July more rigs could become available to Cuba. Cuba can now use products made with 25 percent U.S. components, up from 10 percent previously.
Only one known deepwater rig in the world met the 10 percent threshold. Officials have already identified about a dozen deepwater rigs that meet the new requirements, approximately a third of which are U.S.-owned, said Eredio Puentes, Cupet offshore drilling supervisor.
As for exploration and production, Cupet does not currently have any proposals from U.S. oil companies, although a few have started conversations and solicited information, officials said.
“This kind of company is very sensitive to legal matters, so they are going to take it step by step,” Suarez said. “There’s not going to be an avalanche.”
Cuba receives much of its oil from socialist ally Venezuela, which continues to supply approximately 100,000 barrels of oil to Cuba per day, Suarez said. (Reporting by Jaime Hamre; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Marguerita Choy)