by Raimundo Urrechaga
HAVANA, Feb. 10 (Xinhua) -- International oil companies believe there is still great potential to make new oil discoveries in Cuba since most of the island remains unexplored.
At a three-day meeting that started Wednesday, more than 200 experts from 15 oil companies shared their experiences in boosting the Cuban oil and gas industry.
The "Cuba Oil and Gas Summit 2017," hosted by Cuba's state-owned oil company CUPET, was aimed at attracting foreign investment.
Cuba has not made any major oil discoveries since 2002, according to Roberto Suarez, deputy general director of CUPET.
Cuba is looking to relaunch its own oil industry, particularly for offshore explorations and drilling, to reduce its dependence on oil imports, which currently account for more than 50 percent of the nation's needs.
"Our company believes Cuba has a rich natural endowment of oil and gas, particularly in the onshore sector where there are wells, existing production and reserves," Peter Strickland, managing director of Australia's Melbana Energy, told Xinhua.
This company has signed a production-sharing contract in Cuba's Block 9, about 140 km east of Havana.
The zone, which CUPET calls the North Belt, has been divided into 45 separate blocks to intensify shallow water and onshore exploration.
Strickland said Melbana Energy's block is at the exploration stage and the company has made "very encouraging" initial studies in the area.
"Our initial plans were to drill in 2019 or 2020. But I think with the work done so far, we can accelerate that. Potentially we might be drilling in 2018 if we can complete the technical, commercial and financial steps," he said.
Initial studies showed potential for approximately 600 million oil barrels in Block 9. "It's a lot of oil but it does come with risks...Until we drill, we won't know if that potential is real or not," Strickland told Xinhua.
Melbana Energy, which changed its name from MEO Australia, announced the great potential of its block in 2016 and estimated it could recover about 395 million barrels.
The discovery made CUPET enthusiastic about the future of this joint contract, especially as it began a massive seismic study covering 25,000 square kilometers around the island in December.
The survey is being carried out by BGP Inc, a Chinese geophysical company, with new high-definition technologies and software.
"The study is around 70 percent complete and is showing very good images and potential for oil discovery in Cuba. The data shows that we can help CUPET find oil in this country," Xing Hongkai, general manager of BGP Inc, told Xinhua.
At the summit, other firms, which previously held discussions with CUPET, came to offer their services, to see how they could boost the island's oil industry, such as Enviro-Tech Systems, a leading U.S. company in environmental operations that can process water treatment.
Since Havana and Washington reestablished relations in 2015, many U.S. companies have approached their Cuban counterparts to establish business ties. However, the continuing economic embargo on the island presents a major obstacle in sealing such commercial deals.
"Our equipment could allow CUPET to ensure discharged oily water could be made clean and usable again. Currently, they don't have this type of technology," Frank Richerand, general director of Enviro-Tech systems, told Xinhua.
"We came to the summit because it's a chance to network with CUPET and several other companies around the world as well as a good way to meet people in the industry. Our company is based in Louisiana and our state is very close to Cuba," he added.
One company that has been Cuba's long-time partner is Venezuela's state oil giant, the PDVSA.
Both firms have developed numerous projects over the last decade including a joint refinery in central Cuba which was supplied with oil from Venezuela. While the economic crisis in that country has led to oil shipments being cut nearly in half, new cooperation alternatives have arisen.
"We're currently working in offshore exploration up to 3,000 meters in depth. Our company continues to analyze and study this area to begin drilling once the technical, commercial and financial conditions are set," PDVSA Exploration Director Jesus Benavides told Xinhua.
CUPET is also looking for partners to introduce new technologies to its industry and continue deepwater exploration in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Gulf of Mexico.
Experts estimated reserves equivalent to 22 billion oil barrels in the 112,000 square-km area.
Since 1999, CUPET and foreign partners have failed to find oil in the EEZ for four times, with a fifth attempt about to start.