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.

US Coast Guard/Reuters/File
Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon off Louisiana in this April 21, 2010, file photo. Now, less than three months before deep water drilling begins in Cuban waters, neither Congress nor the Obama administration has taken the necessary steps to prevent a similar disaster that could impact even more US coastline.

The good news? Cuban energy officials are taking the lessons of the BP oil spill disaster very seriously, according to a group of oil drilling and environmental experts just back from Cuba, including the co-chairman of the Bipartisan National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling (also former EPA administrator), the head of the International Association of Drilling Contractors, a former senior executive for Royal Dutch Shell, and a longtime Cuba expert with the Environmental Defense Fund.

The bad news? Less than three months before deep water drilling begins in Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico, neither Congress nor the Obama administration has taken the necessary steps to help prevent or respond to a similar disaster that could impact even more US coastline. Granted, it seems a bit far-fetched to imagine the present Congress sending any legislation to the president these days, so the burden of preparedness essentially rests with the administration.

That's got CNN's Fareed Zakaria wondering, "What in the World?"

"What happens if there's another oil spill? Will it be easy and quick to clean up? No. You see, the nearest and best experts on safety procedures and dealing with oil spills are all American, but we are forbidden by our laws from being involved in any way with Cuba. Our trade embargo on Cuba not only prevents us from doing business with our neighbor but it also bars us from sending equipment and expertise to help even in a crisis. So, if there is an explosion, we will watch while the waters of the Gulf Coast get polluted."

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.

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.

3. Rapid response oil spill services providers such as Helix Well Containment Group and Marine Well Containment Company should be granted licenses to provide emergency services to international oil companies operating in Cuba in the case of an oil spill.

Helix Well Containment Group and the Marine Well Containment Company are companies which provide a comprehensive and integrated rapid response system in the case of a major oil spill incident; their members/shareholders are among the largest operators of deepwater oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, including companies such as Repsol, Statoil and ENI (Owner of the Scarabeo 9).

4. Cuba's national oil company CUPET should be allowed to join the International Association of Drilling Contractors – IADC – in order to gain experience in deepwater drilling by the sharing of industry health, safety and environmental best practices through IADC conferences, training seminars, and technical publications in areas such as drilling and completion technology; standards, practices, legislation and regulations which provide for safe, efficient, and environmentally sound drilling operations.

It took the Obama administration well over a year to issue its regulations facilitating more academic, religious, and people-to-people exchanges with Cuba in January (and once issued, it still took nearly three months to issue guidance on the regulations). That unnecessary, politically driven delay was excruciating, but there's no room for politics or delay when it comes to oil spill prevention and response. And forget case-by-case licensing for US companies that offer training, supplies, or clean up. Why take a chance with such a limiting approach? To ensure the best and fastest disaster preparedness and response, Piñón recommends industry-wide general licensing.

Hopefully, the White House got a full debrief from Mr. O'Reilly and his colleagues on their timely trip to Cuba, and with it, a renewed sense of urgency to get broad, forward-thinking regulations out lo mas pronto posible.

--- Anya Landau French blogs for The Havana Note, a project of the "US-Cuba Policy Initiative,” directed by Ms. Landau French, at the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program.

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