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Is the White House ready for a Cuban deep water drilling disaster?

In three months deep water drilling is set to begin in Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico, but the US embargo on Cuba could spell catastrophe should a repeat of the Deepwater Horizon spill occur.

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Just days before the BP disaster struck last year, Jorge Piñón, the foremost expert on oil drilling in Cuba and where US policy intersects it, and I urged the US to talk to Cuba about oil spill prevention and response. At that time, deepwater exploration in Cuban waters was slated for late 2010. Unfortunately, the BP disaster made our call for prevention and planning with Cuba all the more salient.

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Now, after several delays, with a Chinese-built Italian oil rig, the Scarabeo 9, on its way to Cuba, drilling of the first of five exploratory wells in Cuban deep water is set to commence this December.

A spill from this first, easternmost exploratory well to be drilled by the Repsol consortium could be particularly damaging due to its location where the Gulf Stream exits the Gulf of Mexico for the Atlantic. Whereas the BP disaster was somewhat "contained" in the northern Gulf, Piñón tells me to "imagine a fan-shaped spill with the well as the axis." If something were to go wrong on Scarabeo 9, we could see and feel the effects of a major oil spill in Cuban deep water not just in Florida, but far up the Atlantic coast.

If ever there were a moment to put aside political posturing about Cuba, this would be the moment. Will the Obama administration rise to the challenge? Despite a near-total, half-century-old trade embargo against Cuba, the president has broad authority to issue regulations that would mandate US preparedness and cooperation with Cuba – and other countries, like Mexico and the Bahamas – to prevent and respond to an oil spill. Given that drilling is set for less than 90 days from now, there's no time to lose.

Here's what Jorge Piñón tells me he'd recommend, all of which can be done within existing executive branch authority:

1. The United States and Cuba should begin conversations to develop a joint protocol or an emergency coordination response agreement, such as the one currently in place between the United States, Mexico, and Canada, which would coordinate emergency services, establish joint response teams, establish rapid incident notification mechanisms, and set up joint operations centers and communication procedures along with regular exercises and meetings.

2. The United States administration should move to exempt United States oil equipment and supply companies from the US embargo regulations in case of an oil spill in Cuban waters by providing an industry wide general license for export only in the case of an emergency situation which would threaten our shared marine environment.

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