By Jeff Franks
Havana (Reuters) - Spanish oil company Repsol YPF has begun drilling the first well in Cuba's long-awaited exploration of offshore oilfields that the communist country says hold both billions of barrels of oil and the key to greater prosperity, industry sources told Reuters.
The massive Scarabeo 9 drilling rig, which arrived in Cuban waters two weeks ago, began drilling into the sea floor about 30 miles northwest of Havana on Tuesday night, the sources said.
A Repsol spokesman said the company could not comment on "operational details."
The newly built, high-tech rig is operating in 5,600 feet of water, or what the oil industry calls "ultra-deep water," in the Straits of Florida, which separate Cuba from its longtime ideological foe, the United States.
Sources close to the project said such wells generally take about 60 days to complete.
Repsol, which is operating the rig in a consortium with Norway's Statoil and ONGC Videsh, a unit of India's Oil and Natural Gas Corp, has said it will take several months to determine the results of the exploration.
The well is the first of at least three that will be drilled in Cuban waters with the Scarabeo 9, which was built in China and is owned by Saipem, a unit of Italian oil company Eni.
Sources have said that Repsol will drill the first well and then the rig will go to Malaysia's Petronas in partnership with Russia's Gazprom Neft and then back to Repsol for the third well.
It is not clear what happens after that, although some sources have said Repsol, which is leasing the Scarabeo 9 from Saipem at a rate said to be more than $500,000 a day, will move the rig to Brazil for exploration there.
Cuba has said it may have 20 billion barrels of oil in its northern waters, which are its part of the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated it may have 5 billion barrels of oil, but its study does not include the entire Cuban gulf zone.
(Additional reporting by Jane Sutton in Miami; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)