Cuba's fledgling oil industry has for the first time dropped an offshore rig into the waters off the Florida Keys, a move that has U.S. officials and environmentalists warning that the island nation's energy ambitions could come at the expense of the ecologically sensitive region at the tip of the Florida Peninsula.
Cuba cannot be trusted to provide even the bare essentials to its own citizens and it certainly can't be trusted to oversee safe and environmentally sound oil drilling only 90 miles off our pristine Florida coast, said Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll in testimony before the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.
Working with Spain's biggest oil company, Repsol, Cuba has placed an exploratory well 30 miles off Havana, 5,600 feet below the ocean surface. It's one of five wells planned in the region and is deeper than BP's Macondo well that spilled millions of barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The well sits 56 miles away from the Keys. By contrast, BP's well was 41 miles off the Lousiana coast. Cuban officials hope that the oil produced offshore will fill a 100,000-barrel-a-day supply gap currently covered by Venezuela.
Because of the well's location in the Florida Strait a spill or blowout, like the one that occurred in the Gulf, would be an environmental disaster of untold peril, said John Proni of Florida International University, a scientist with the Atlantic Oceanography and Meteorological Laboratory, a branch of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
Proni, who also testified before the maritime subcommittee, explained that the Cuban rig sits dangerously close to the Gulf Stream current system. Any leaked oil that gets into this whirlpool would reach U.S. coastal waters quickly and threaten the iconic Florida coral reef system, important fisheries and breeding grounds, location of threatened and endangered sea grass and coral, and habitat for rare and endangered species, Proni said.
The drilling of the well is expected to take roughly two months.
The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement concluded last month that the Cuban rig met U.S. standards after American offshore oil drilling regulators boarded and reviewed the Spanish-operated equipment before it reached Cuban waters. However, because the rig was not bound for U.S. territory, nor contracted for exploration in the United States, the regulators had no authority to influence Repsol's plans. The U.S. has recently overhauled its offshore permitting processes and tightened regulations -- and it is likely that these rules will continue to evolve in the coming years. Since the U.S. and Cuba do not have diplomatic relations, it will be impossible to continue to monitor this offshore project even as the standards for operating rigs in coastal waters improve.
Oil spills in offshore projects are an increasingly common occurrence. From the early 1970s through the 1990s there were only four a year in U.S. waters. But between 2005 and 2010, there was an average of more than 20 oil spills a year in coastal waters. So although Repsol has a relatively good reputation for quality, the chance of a spill cannot be discounted. If it occurs in this project, Cuba simply does not have the capabilities or equipment to respond quickly enough to an accident before it begins to compromise the waters around it, said Jorge Pinon, a former president of Amoco Oil Latin America and an expert on Cuba's oil industry. The BP well blowout required 5,000 vessels, three additional rigs, submersibles, more than 100 aircraft and 30,000 emergency responders to get under control.
Cuba doesn't have these assets, said Pinon. They will have to come from the United States.
Because of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, which restricts business transactions and trade between the two countries, U.S. companies and experts would not be permitted to respond to a Cuban offshore oil rig accident. However, Pinon noted that the U.S. president could temporarily lift the embargo to allow crews and first responders to participate in a shutdown and recovery operation. The Spanish rig uses a U.S. blowout preventer so replacement equipment could theoretically be sent in as well.
But the logistics of such a rescue effort would mar its effectiveness, Pinon added. With so little routine communication and so much antagonism between the two countries, it's hard to imagine how a plan could be worked out quickly for who takes command of the many moving parts involved in a cleanup. And there would be many questions to address about whether U.S. spotter and oil dispersant planes could fly in Cuban airspace, where rescue teams could operate and whether crews would need visas. All of this could greatly delay the response and increase the chance that the Florida Keys would be damaged, Pinon said.
Jennifer Diaz, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said the state is in the process of drafting a coastal oil spill response plan. Two others for the region are being put together by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Lt. Patrick Montgomery, a spokesman for the Coast Guard, which would take the lead on any ocean cleanup, said it is always on the lookout for oil spills. But in the event of a spill in Cuban territorial waters, the Coast Guard's response powers are nil.
Montgomery said that under current rules crews can only clean up oil that is spilled or drifts into U.S. and international waters. But since the well is in Cuban territory, it will be the responsibility of Cuban and Repsol authorities to shut down a malfunctioning well and prevent any oil from leaking.
We have in place contingency plans that adhere to the strictest international standards and are confident that we have all the elements in place to deal with potential threats, said Kristian Rix, a spokesman for Repsol, who did not elaborate further. Our diligence has been rewarded by the positive comments and feedback received from the U.S. Coast Guard during their inspection of the rig.
Rix added the company implemented two suggestions made by U.S. regulators but did not elaborate.
Manuel Marrero of the Cuban Ministry of Basic Industry said on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Website that Cuba's environmental regulations pertaining to oil drilling are very strict and severe. Companies involved in the drilling of offshore oil in Cuban waters will be required to have equipment and a logistics center in the coastal town of Mariel, located several miles outside Havana.
None of this is comforting to Frank Verrastro, senior VP and director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Energy and National Security Program, who put it succinctly: Cuba has never drilled for deepwater oil before and the expectation is [Cubans] don't have the capability to handle [a large spill].