oil_rig.jpegKINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) – The turquoise waters that have long brought treasure seekers to the Caribbean now are drawing a new kind of explorer as countries across the region increasingly open their seas to oil exploration.

From the Bahamas and Cuba down to Aruba and Suriname, international oil companies are lining up to locate potentially rich offshore deposits. The countries hope drilling could lead to a black-gold bonanza, easing demand for imported oil and diversifying their economies.

So far, Trinidad & Tobago is the only major hydrocarbons producer in the Caribbean and its waters are crowded with offshore platforms. The country sits just about seven miles off the coast of Venezuela which has the world’s largest proven oil reserves. It’s pushing hard into deep-water drilling and has signed production-sharing contracts with British oil company BP for new exploration blocks.

A growing number of other nations are also authorizing or at least aggressively pursuing offshore exploration.

The Bahamas recently announced it would try offshore exploratory drilling and said it should have enough information by late 2014 to decide whether it can move forward with production. A voter referendum would first have to decide the matter. Bahamas Petroleum Company CEO Simon Potter said a rig will drill to subsea depths of roughly 22,000 feet in some 1,600 feet of water adjacent to Cuba’s offshore territory.

Barbados and Jamaica have also been seeking well exploration in their seas, while the Anglo-Dutch group Shell announced in December it was preparing to sink its third offshore well in nearby French Guiana, an overseas French department, with other companies also exploring in deep waters there.

The push for exploration has been fed partly by worries that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s nearly two-year-long cancer fight and March 5 death would affect a Venezuelan aid program called PetroCaribe that sells petroleum to 17 Caribbean countries on preferential terms.

PetroCaribe provided $14 billion worth of oil to the region last year, with Cuba being the principal beneficiary. Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro hasn’t said he would stop the aid but his challenger in April 14 elections, Gov. Henrique Capriles, has pledged to cut off subsidized oil to Cuba and reevaluate the PetroCaribe program, if elected.

Nonetheless, many people across the region fear their famed clear water, fringing reefs and white-sand beaches could end up a casualty to any future oil boom, threatening the tourism bonanza that many countries already depend on.

Even with the possibility of a windfall still distant, regional officials have begun to discuss how they would cooperate in the event of a major accident, such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ocean currents practically assure that a big spill in one Caribbean nation would significantly affect neighbors, possibly even the U.S. East Coast.

In Guyana and Suriname, officials are busy licensing deals and offering concessions in a long-ignored basin the U.S. Geological Survey last year estimated to have “significant undiscovered conventional oil potential.”

Exploratory drilling in deep waters has already begun off Guyana, where, last year, an international consortium moved to cap a high-pressure well at a subsea depth of 16,000 feet over safety concerns. Several oil companies still believe the area is promising, and Spanish energy company Repsol and the U.K.’s Tullow Oil PLC are negotiating new licenses, according to Guyana Natural Resources Minister Robert Persaud. Exploratory wells also were sunk last year in waters off the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

“The Caribbean is no longer kind of the forgotten basin,” Persaud said. “I think it is going to become a prominent player in deep-water drilling.”