U.S. and Cuba seek common ground

Teaming up to protect vital marine resources

Vast untapped reserves of “black gold” are thought to lie off Cuba’s north shore—enough, experts say, to wean the country from its dependence on Venezuelan oil imports. This year Spanish oil giant Repsol plans to begin exploratory drilling in deep waters 50 miles off Key West, and foreign oil companies from Russia, Malaysia, Brazil, India and Venezuela, among others, are lining up behind them.

For the United States, Cuba and Mexico, the risks of drilling in deepwaters of the Gulf of Mexico are enormous. Experts warn that a large spill in Cuban waters could be more catastrophic than the BP disaster, given the three countries’ sensitive marine ecosystems.

The problems could be compounded by delays in getting the expertise and state-of-the-art technology needed to deal with a large, deepwater accident. U.S. policy restricts American companies from working with Cuban enterprises to protect the waters we share.

Can environmental concerns bridge the political gulf?

“For half a century, a political gulf has divided our two countries,” says EDF’s chief oceans scientist Doug Rader. “It is time for a pragmatic approach that would help Cuba prepare for the worst, while developing a strong foundation for our shared environmental future.”

Over the past decade, Cuban environmental lawyers have been developing regulations for offshore oil and gas drilling that include strict oversight. During the BP oil spill crisis in 2010, EDF’s oceans staff provided regular updates to Cuban environmental officials to help them assess what damage might occur to the island’s ecosystems and coastal communities.

Luckily, oil from the BP blowout did not wash onto Cuban beaches. But given prevailing currents and winds, neither country may be as fortunate next time around. EDF urges that the United States begin a dialogue with the Cuban and Mexican governments on oil and gas drilling in the Gulf.

The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill recommends that international standards be developed and specifically that “it is in our country’s national interest to negotiate now with these near neighbors to agree on a common, rigorous set of standards [and] a system for regulatory oversight…”

Tapping clean energy to reduce oil imports

As part of a national strategy to gain energy independence and reduce global warming pollution, Cuba also hopes to develop cleaner sources of energy. In 2008, at the request of our Cuban partners we organized an international symposium on ocean energy to explore ways to develop this largely untapped source without harming the environment.

Cuba provides good conditions for a variety of ocean energy options—including wind and current—and may prove ideal for ocean thermal energy conversion. As with any large-scale technology, building and operating energy facilities may pose risks to marine life and habitat. Sensitive ecosystem —such as coral reefs and mangroves, and important nursery and rookery areas for fish, marine mammals, seabirds and sea turtles—must be protected.

“With good standards and policy in place, Cuba could be a model for clean energy development in the Caribbean,” says Dr. Rod Fujita, EDF senior scientist and director of Ocean Innovations.

Fostering further cooperation

Cooperation is as critical to U.S. interests as it is to Cuba’s. Cuban waters provide vital spawning and nursery grounds for snapper, grouper and other commercially important reef fish in the United States. Cuba is also the major stopover point on migration routes to and from South America for most of the familiar songbirds along the U.S. East Coast.

And the two nations quite likely share a recently discovered deepwater coral ecosystem that extends north to North Carolina. “Though the United States and Cuba share many ecological resources, we have different ways of managing them,” says EDF attorney Dan Whittle, director of our Cuba program. “Fishing, coastal development, and offshore oil and gas exploration in Cuba can have huge impacts on the United States and vice-versa.”