By Dawn Gable
HAVANA TIMES, May 28 — “Massive resources have been dedicated to containing the oil spill and mitigating environmental damage. The US Coast Guard, Navy, and Minerals Management Service were mobilized, not to mention scores of private contractors, deploying advanced-technology vessels and equipment. These efforts were able to commence within minutes of the initial blowout…Now, imagine if none of these resources had been available….”
This was the scenario considered yesterday in Washington DC when scientists, oil industry representatives and Cuba policy experts gathered at the New America Foundation to discuss the need for the US to take concrete steps toward developing a contingency plan with Cuba in the event of an oil accident in Cuban waters where exploration is about to begin. Currently the embargo blocks the US from deploying resources or personnel in response to such an incident.
This is not the first time the topic has been discussed in that nation’s capital. Last year the Brookings Institution sponsored a similar event in which panelists called on the Obama administration and Congress to recognize the potential danger posed to Florida’s Atlantic shores by Cuba’s eventual deep water drilling in the Gulf and to begin a dialogue with the island’s government that would lead to a comprehensive prevention and mitigation plan. Unfortunately, the Administration did not take the issue seriously at the time.
The oil spewing into the Gulf right now could not underscore more the need to prepare for some future spill in Cuban waters- that would affect, among other things, US commercial fisheries, since species such as snapper and tuna spawn in Cuban waters- but also to avert and minimize damage to Cuba by US accidents.
Cubans Are Receptive to Collaboration
Brian Petty of the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC) explained that last fall his group was denied a license to take a delegation of technical experts to Cuba in order to dialogue on safety with Cuban offshore regulatory authorities. However, in view of the current disaster, they have just been granted a short-window license.
In particular, the IADC wants to offer the Cubans competence assurance training modules that are currently in use around the world. Petty noted that the Cubans are receptive to IADC’s programs and recommended practices and have stated that they will require rigs to undergo an IADC designed safety screening, something that is not currently a requirement in the US.
Jorge Piñon, former President of Amoco Oil Latin America and expert on Cuba’s energy sector, warned that there is no time to waste. According to Piñon, the Spanish Reposol has a 5-year lease on a semi-submersible rig that it will use for exploratory drilling in Cuban waters by the fall. The rig contains no US technology or parts and is being manufactured in China by an Italian company.
Piñon also assured that the BP incident will not stop Cuba from moving forward given that over 5 billion barrels of undiscovered oil is believed to exist just in Cuba’s northern basin. That would put Cuba on par with other South American oil producers such as Ecuador, Colombia and Argentina. In addition, the USGS estimates 9.8 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered natural gas in the northern basin and Cuba’s oil company Cupet estimates another 20 billion barrels of crude in what is called the eastern gap, an area in the Gulf where demarcation lines between Mexico, US and Cuba have not yet been drawn, but where Cuba will own a portion.
Likewise, while there is a moratorium on new drilling in the US at the moment, projects will soon be underway in the areas Obama just opened up. Piñon pointed out the logistical problems in the new Gulf block presented by not cooperating with Cuba. The portion of the block that is expected to contain oil butts up to Cuban territorial waters. According to him, it will be necessary for boats to be able to cross back and forth over the line in order to carry out their work.
Hostage to Florida Politics
The “worst oil spill in US history” is what Dan Whittle of the Environmental Defense Fund called the current discharge in the Hemisphere’s “fish basket” as he ticked off the number of bird and marine species affected by it. He extolled Cuba’s environmental regulations and the expertise of the island’s scientists while conveying the Cubans’ fear that the oil will reach their shores and their concern over what the US plans to do about it if it does. While operational level talks have begun that might be helpful in the current crisis, what is needed, in the view of all the panelists, is a far-reaching collaborative plan that involves Mexico, Cuba and the United States.
The President has the power to “tweek the embargo in many ways” assured Attorney Robert Muse; he can authorize U.S. oil technicians and environmental specialists to travel to Cuba as well as transfers of technology and equipment. According to Muse, the problem is that the embargo is not a foreign policy, but rather a domestic policy at the mercy of the Administration’s inner staff, Axelrod and Rahm, who are in turn hostage to Florida party politics.
On the other hand, there was consensus among the panelists that the environment is the least politicized topic possible for engaging with Cuba, especially when Florida habitat itself is at risk. But just a year ago, even Congressman Farr, a longtime advocate for normalizing relations with Cuba and a stalwart defender of ocean health, could not be convinced to send a simple letter to the Administration regarding the urgency of cooperating with Cuba on ocean protection. We can only hope that the current catastrophe will finally light a fire under some folks in DC.