The U.S., Cuba and oil diplomacy

Oil drilling begins off Cuba. Will it be safe enough?

Oil rig in Cuba

A huge oil rig is now in place for exploratory drilling just 60 miles south of Key West.

Photo construction: Oil rig by Ho New/Reuters; Cuban beach by Nicolas McComber/iStockphoto

With the arrival of a huge drilling rig in January 2012, Cuba has moved forward on exploring for oil just 60 miles from Key West, in partnership with the Spanish oil company Repsol.

Significant untapped reserves of oil and gas lie off Cuba’s north shore — enough, experts say, to make Cuba self-sufficient and even an exporter of oil. Within 18 months, there could be six exploratory deepwater wells operating in the pristine waters where Ernest Hemingway once fished.

A major oil spill in Cuban waters could devastate both coastal Cuba and the United States. The 2010 BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was a reminder of how damaging an oil blowout can be, especially in deep water. Florida’s $60 billion tourism and fishing industries — as well as the Dry Tortugas marine sanctuary and deepwater corals in the Southeast Atlantic — are at stake.

Finding common ground

That’s why EDF has started a conversation between Cuban and U.S. officials with the aim of ensuring that drilling is done safely. The dialogue builds on more than a decade of work with Cuban fishermen, scientists and environmental officials to promote marine conservation, sustainable fishing and coastal zone management.

In September 2011, EDF, operating under a special license from the U.S. government, led an unprecedented delegation to Cuba, including former EPA administrator Bill Reilly, co-chairman of the BP oil spill commission. The goal was to assess Cuba’s offshore oil and gas plans and to share lessons learned about the risks of offshore drilling with Cuban officials.

“The trip put the spotlight on the lack of dialogue between the United States and Cuba on how to prepare and respond to an oil spill in Cuban waters,” says Lee Hunt, head of the International Association of Drilling Contractors, who helped organize the trip. “EDF has proved itself as an influential voice and broker for environmental diplomacy.”

Mr. Whittle goes to Washington

Dan Whittle, the director of EDF’s Cuba program, recently testified before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee. “The Administration should take immediate steps to initiate negotiations with the Cuban government to ensure that sufficient environmental and safety standards are in place before drilling begins,” he said.

It’s a sensitive political issue because if there were a spill, U.S. technology might be prevented from being quickly deployed due to the long-running U.S. embargo of Cuba. The United States has more than 5,000 wells in its territorial waters in the Gulf. But none are nearly as close to the Florida coast as the proposed sites off Havana.

Common sense vs. politics

At our urging, the Obama Administration has agreed to pre-authorize some U.S.-based companies to assist in preventing and containing major oil spills in Cuban waters. “That’s a start,” says Whittle, “but we need a more comprehensive policy, with direct government-to-government engagement.”

“The United States has strong spill-response agreements with Canada, Mexico and Russia,” Whittle adds. “We need to make sure Cuba has the same safeguards and rigorous oversight. We can’t let politics get in the way of common-sense actions.”

EDF has proved itself as an influential voice and broker for environmental diplomacy.

Lee Hunt International Association of Drilling Contractors

An oil spill in Cuban waters could foul beaches and marine life from Florida to North Carolina.

Carol Zuber Mallison