An oil well pump operates in Brisas Del Mar, Cuba (File)
An oil well pump operates in Brisas Del Mar, Cuba (File)

A Spanish energy company is planning to help Cuba drill for oil off the island's northern coast, about 80 kilometers south of the U.S. state of Florida.

Repsol spokesman Kristian Rix says the company has drilling rights to a 4,500-square-kilometer area in the Straits of Florida but would not give a timeline on when oil exploration would begin.

Cuba currently imports most of its oil and gas from Venezuela, but oil experts say there could be significant offshore reserves.  A study earlier this year by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that Cuba might be able to access 4.6 billion barrels of oil.

The plans by Cuba and Repsol to drill for oil are raising concerns in the United States because of the proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, where an explosion aboard a BP oil rig in April led to the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson is urging the White House to pressure the Cuban government to abandon its offshore drilling plans.

Scientists warn any oil from a spill off Cuba's north coast could reach the southeastern United States within days.  And experts worry difficult relations between the U.S. and Cuba's communist government could hurt efforts to respond to a potential disaster.

The U.S. State Department says U.S. companies can be licensed to provide oil spill prevention and clean-up support to Cuba.

There are also concerns that the U.S. trade embargo is complicating Cuba's efforts to safely drill for oil.

The embargo calls for sanctions against companies that supply more than 10 percent of the parts for any vessel operating in Cuban waters.

To get around the embargo, Spanish energy firm Repsol has been working with an Italian company to build an oil exploration rig in China.  The rig is expected to arrive in Cuba early next year.

Despite the concerns, a Cuban official visiting the U.S. says he is confident Cuba can drill for oil safely.

Luis Alberto Barreras Canizo of Cuba's Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment told the McClatchy Newspaper Service that Cuba's environmental framework is "very progressive."  Barreras was in Sarasota, Florida this week for a meeting with American and Mexican officials on marine research and conservation.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports some U.S. officials see Cuba's oil ambitions as a chance to loosen the trade embargo and allow U.S. energy companies to pursue more opportunities in Cuba.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson told the Times he believes the Obama administration will move forward with potential changes following mid-term elections in November.

Separately, a Cuban delegation visiting Azerbaijan this week raised the possibility of cooperation between the two countries in the oil and energy sectors.