As energy companies from Spain, Russia and Malaysia line up to drill for oil in Cuban waters 60 miles from the Florida Keys, U.S. agencies are struggling to cobble together emergency plans to protect fragile reefs, sandy beaches and a multibillion-dollar tourism industry in the event of a spill.
DESMOND BOYLAN/REUTERS – A Chinese-built drilling rig known as Scarabeo 9 is seen off the coast of Havana in January. Spanish oil company Repsol YPF has begun drilling the first well in Cuba’s long-awaited exploration of offshore oilfields.
Drawing up contingency plans to confront a possible spill is much more difficult because of the economic embargo against Cuba. U.S. law bars most American companies — including oil services and spill containment contractors — from conducting business with the communist island. The embargo, now entering its 50th year, also limits direct government-to-government talks.
In the vacuum, a Coast Guard admiral in Miami and a dozen technocrats from Cuba and the United States have begun to quietly engage in an awkward partnership of necessity to protect their coastlines, separated by politics but united by the mighty Gulf Stream.
“This is a case of Cold War ideology colliding with 21st-century environmental policy, and it is the environment that is at risk,” said Lee Hunt, president of the International Association of Drilling Contractors.
The need to plan a detailed response for a possible spill in Cuban waters — including who pays for what — is driven by memories of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, where close to 5 million barrels of crude flowed unabated for three months off the Louisiana coast.
The Deepwater Horizon accident, the largest maritime spill ever, involved a massive response by the U.S. government to contain what experts concluded was a preventable disaster caused by misjudgments by three major oil drilling companies: BP, Halliburton and Transocean.
“Now imagine something like that happening in the waters between two countries that don’t even talk to each other,” said Jorge Pinon, a former president of Amoco Oil Latin America and now a research fellow at the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas.
The Deepwater Horizon liabilities could exceed $43 billion. Containing the oil in Louisiana employed 5,000 vessels. Cuba’s total gross domestic product is $50 billion. Pinon said that Cuba, with a tiny navy and a thin coast guard, has only 5 percent of the resources needed to contain a spill approaching the size of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
“The U.S. Coast Guard is terrified,” he said.
5 billion barrels
Last month, Repsol, a Spanish oil and gas company, using a state-of-the-art, Norwegian-designed, Chinese-built, semi-submersible rig called Scarabeo 9, began drilling the first in a series of deep-water exploratory wells in the Florida Straits, at a cost of $500,000 a day.
According to a 2004 study by the U.S. Geological Survey, there could be 5 billion barrels of undiscovered oil reserves in the north Cuba basin. While some U.S. lawmakers might not like it, Cuba has every right to drill for oil in its own waters.
Congressional Republicans representing Cuban American communities in Florida say the Obama administration should have imposed sanctions and threatened foreign companies such as Repsol from doing business in Cuba.