Cuba drills for oil, but U.S. unprepared for spill
By William Booth, Updated: Thursday, March 1, 12:30 PM
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
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
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
The need to plan a detailed response for a possible spill in Cuban
waters — including who pays for what — is being 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
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 Piñon, 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. Piñon 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, the Spanish oil and gas company Repsol, 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.
Congressional Republicans representing Cuban American communities in
Florida say the Obama administration should have imposed sanctions and
threatened foreign companies like Repsol from doing business in Cuba.