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A Spanish company's search for oil off the northern coast of Cuba has come up empty after raising concerns about the potential of an oil spill reaching Florida shores, but another exploratory well is in the works.

Oil giant Repsol began drilling in January less than 100 miles from Key West after pledging to adhere to U.S. drilling regulations and allowing U.S. inspectors to check out the rig before it entered Cuban waters.

With Repsol hitting a dry hole and the continued lack of a formal oil spill response agreement between the United States and Cuba, the floating rig now moves west to drill an exploratory well for Petronas, the state-run oil company of Malaysia, which is in partnership with Russia.

"The issues are the same but they now are a bit more complicated," said Jorge Pinon, an oil industry expert and a research fellow at the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at The University of Texas.

For starters, Petronas' state-owned status raised legal questions about sovereign immunity from paying damages in the case of a spill, Pinon said. Because Petronas has no U.S. interests, unlike Repsol, the United States has less leverage over the company.

As for Repsol, the company is reviewing data it got from its dry exploratory well to determine its next move. Not finding oil — four out of five wells fail to produce — doesn't necessarily mean oil reserves aren't there, spokesman Kristian Rix said.

"Trying to map an oil field is like mapping a city from a helicopter with one out of every 10 streetlights on, on a foggy night," Rix said.

Experts have little doubt the area northwest of Cuba holds oil, but estimates of how much range from 5 billion barrels to 20 billion barrels.

"I think it's too early to tell whether this (dry well) is a significant finding, or non-finding, or not," said Daniel Whittle, senior attorney and Cuba Program director at Environmental Defense Fund.

Petronas will drill its exploratory well farther west, off the coast of Pinar del Rio at the island country's western tip, with the same Chinese-built, Italian-owned rig used by Repsol.

U.S. inspectors found the rig to "generally comply" with international and U.S. standards, but the inspection didn't cover reviews that can take place only once the rig is in place. That includes testing the blowout preventer and how well the rig is secured in place.

Officials with the Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami couldn't be reached for comment last week about what, if any, talks they have had with Petronas about their oil spill response plans.

By the time Repsol began drilling in January, U.S. authorities had overseen tabletop oil spill response exercises with Repsol at the company's offices in Trinidad.

The Petronas drilling tract is west of Repsol's, which puts a larger swath of the Florida Keys and Florida Bay in the path of any spill, experts say.

National Marine Sanctuary Program managers in Key West had kept tabs on Repsol's drilling but Petronas' plans are more of a mystery, said Southeast Regional Director Billy Causey.

He said he's not qualified to comment on the extent of any talks between Petronas and U.S. officials or the adequacy of the new company's spill response plans.

His past work with Cuban marine scientists makes him confident that his counterparts also are keeping an eye on drilling plans off Cuba's sensitive northern coast.

"I do know they are equally as concerned as we are about any mishaps," Causey said.

Under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization, State Department officials have had several meetings with Cuban authorities about an oil spill response agreement, Pinon said.

He said participants in the meetings have told him they have been "extremely pleased" with the Cubans' cooperation.

In a statement last week, U.S. Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, called on the Obama administration to take a harder line against Cuba's oil drilling push.

He wants the United States to yank U.S. drilling leases of any company doing business with a designated State Sponsors of Terrorism, including Cuba, and has sponsored legislation to prohibit those companies from contracting with the Defense Department.

"It is outrageous that these irresponsible companies are currently allowed to profit from U.S. taxpayers while operating against U.S. national security interests," the statement reads.


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