Cuba's oil plans raise red flags
BY MELISSA BERT
Scarabeo-9 is en route Cuban to waters, 70 miles from Florida. This
mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU) is a Chinese-built, Spanish-owned
oil rig set to drill for oil along Cuba's northern coast. Cuba is
counting on offshore drilling to wean itself from Venezuelan energy
dependence. Experts estimate Cuba's continental shelf contains 5 to 20
billion barrels of oil and more than 8 billion cubic feet of natural gas.
Cuba's plans raise red flags. The Scarabeo-9 drilling scenario is a
reprise of Deepwater, with similar drilling depth and distance from U.S.
shores, and a worst-case discharge even higher than Macondo. An oil
blowout in Cuban waters could send crude to the beaches of Florida,
Georgia, and South Carolina.
Repsol, a Spanish company, is running the show. Unlike BP, Repsol is not
subject to U.S. law. Although Repsol has a strong record, it is not
accountable to U.S. citizens in a disaster. Another cause for concern is
that U.S. sanctions against Cuba prohibit U.S. companies from drilling
in Cuba, supplying equipment to or effecting safety regulations in Cuba,
or even responding to an oil spill in its waters.
Cuba's pollution response capability is unknown. The Deepwater Horizon
response was the largest and most sophisticated in history, but was
conducted on site before the oil reached shore, with hundreds of
vessels, thousands of responders, and state of the art technology.
Waiting until oil coats America's beaches is too late.
Responses off Cuba are particularly challenging. The surface currents
are three to four times faster than off Florida's Panhandle. Skimming
oil or burning it may not be possible. Dispersants, which break down oil
for biodegradation, may be the only option, but must be applied at the
source within 96 hours. Otherwise, slicks could overwhelm coastal
containment booms, which are damaging to the coral reefs, marshes, and
sea grass of the Southeast. Getting to the oil at the well head, as was
done in Deepwater, will be the key to preventing massive oil onshore.
Yet instead of working directly with Cuba to prepare, the U.S. is
restrained by sanctions policy. This needs to end. Repsol is only the
first to develop the hydrocarbon potential of the region. Cuba is
already negotiating contracts with Russia, Brazil, China, and India to
lease major portions of its waters.
Preparation is key. Domestically, the Coast Guard and other federal
agencies have been planning and exercising with state counterparts and
oil spill response organizations.
• It is time to incorporate Cuba, as the U.S. does throughout the
Caribbean, Mexico, and Canada, where operational agreements specify
routine exercises, emergency response coordination, communication
protocols, and joint operations.
• Next, the U.S. government should work through sanction hurdles. The
offshore gas and oil industry in the U.S. is the best source for
remotely operated submersibles and undersea containment technologies.
Currently, no U.S. companies are authorized to cap wells or conduct
relief drilling in Cuba waters. Licensing cannot wait. Now is the time
to issue an export only industry-wide general license for oil spill
response in Cuba waters — not in the maelstrom of a crisis.
• Finally, the U.S. must properly fund a response. Lawmakers should
amend the Oil Pollution Act to make all foreign sources of pollution
responsible like BP was in Deepwater, and to cover third party damage
claims. Caps must also be raised. At $50 million a fiscal year, the
first three days of the Deepwater Horizon response would have exhausted
the coffers had BP not paid.
The U.S. will examine Scarabeo-9 before it reaches Cuban waters, and the
government of Cuba participates in multi-lateral maritime safety
conferences. These are important steps, but not enough. Deepwater
Horizon occurred despite well-exercised and coordinated response plans,
superior technology, and an optimal legal framework. Ignoring these
issues with Cuban drilling risks an even greater catastrophic disaster.
Capt. Melissa Bert, U.S. Coast Guard, is a visiting fellow at the
Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the Florida Bar. She was
formerly stationed in Miami for eight years.
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