International sensitivities: What if BP oil spill heads for Cuba?

The BP oil spill has begun to have international repercussions. Cuba is the country most likely to be the first non-US victim if the oil slick advances beyond Florida into the Caribbean.

Workers wait to be deployed to clean tar balls from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the beach at Gulf Shores State Park in Alabama. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill continues to wash ashore along the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Florida. Currents could push it to Cuba.

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with officials from numerous Caribbean countries on a stop in Barbados earlier this week, she was confronted with plenty of hand-wringing over the Gulf oil leak.

The questions and concerns – based on conjectures that the slick from the gushing Deepwater Horizon well could eventually foul Caribbean waters and coastlines – signaled another front in the gradual internationalization of the unfolding disaster.

Until now the oil leak has been largely viewed as an American problem with environmental and economic impacts on US coastlines and being addressed by US officials. But that is now changing.

IN PICTURES: The Gulf oil spill's impact on nature

Already this week the normally smooth waters of US-British relations were roiled by growing signs of strain over objections to US treatment of the officers and stockholders of BP, a big-oil company listed on the London stock exchange.

Some British officials and the London press bellowed the view that US officials – President Obama topping the list – were increasingly mixing anti-British vitriol into their growing frustration with the formerly “British Petroleum” named, formerly British-owned BP.

On Friday, the European Union announced it was responding to a request by US authorities for various types of booms to help contain the spilled oil.

Other countries pitching in

Sweden, Germany, Norway, the UK, and the European Maritime Safety Agency all responded with offers and are working “flat out” to deliver the equipment as soon as possible, the EU Delegation to the US reported Friday. The Netherlands responded to an earlier request by providing three sweeping arms which are already operating in the Gulf.

But the oil leak is also having unanticipated international repercussions, with the US already quietly discussing the Gulf disaster and its potential extended impact with Cuba, the country most likely to be the first non-US victim if the oil slick advances beyond Florida into the Caribbean.

The US, which has modestly expanded contacts with the Cuban government under the Obama administration, has had some low-level discussions with the Cubans about the Gulf oil leak and is keeping channels of communication open in light of the oil’s potential trajectory, State Department officials say.

But some oil experts say the US needs to look beyond the current catastrophe to consider a potential future oil disaster. With Cuba set to commence oil exploration in its northern territorial waters sometime in the next six to nine months, they see a stark scenario under which the US embargo on Cuba would prevent American oilfield and petroleum-technology companies from taking part in any disaster response.

“The oil spill has really moved up-front the whole US-Cuba energy issue,” says Jorge Piñón, a visiting fellow at Florida International University’s Cuban Research Center.

The Gulf leak has reanimated discussion of the economic and political impact oil production will eventually have on Cuba, he says. But he adds that even more important are the worries the situation has raised about a similar disaster in Cuban waters – given longstanding US-Cuban hostilities.

“If an accident like Deepwater Horizon occurred in Mexican or Bahamian or any other territorial waters, all they’d have to do is pick up the phone and contact petroleum-equipment suppliers in Houston, and in a matter of hours they’d be on site,” he says. “That’s not the case with Cuba given the embargo, so days would go by as the bureaucratic paperwork was shifted from agency to department – and in the meantime the oil would be moving towards Key West and South Beach.”

Exempt Cuba embargo on oil equipment?

Mr. Piñón, a former Conoco and BP oil executive, says the Obama administration should do for petroleum equipment and services trade with Cuba what the Clinton administration did for agricultural trade – exempt it from the embargo.

An executive order paving the way for US companies to intervene in a Cuban oil disaster was one of the recommendations of a Cuba Task Force organized by the Brookings Institution in Washington. Piñón serves on the task force and co-authored a recent paper analyzing Cuban oil issues in light of the Gulf disaster.

Before the Gulf spill, much of the focus of analysis of Cuba’s move into oil exploration and production was on the impact it will have on the current regime, Cuba’s relations with current oil-supplier Venezuela, and an eventual transition government in Havana.

“Some of the folks in Washington remain focused on making sure we do nothing to strengthen the current regime,” Piñón says. “I’m telling them that if Repsol [the Spanish firm with the contract for the first round of exploration] does find oil it will take 3-7 years before Cuba is a major producer. But a disaster could happen in the meantime, and we should want to be ready.”

IN PICTURES: The Gulf oil spill's impact on nature


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