Saturday, June 12, 2010

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

International sensitivities: What if BP oil spill heads for Cuba?
The Christian Science Monitor
By Howard LaFranchi Howard Lafranchi – Fri Jun 11, 7:46 pm ET

Washington – 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 â€" based on conjectures that the slick from
the gushing Deepwater Horizon well could eventually foul Caribbean
waters and coastlines â€" 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

Other countries pitching inSweden, 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

"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."

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