We must prepare in case Cuban oil rigs spring a leak
By Dr. John R. Proni and Dr. Richard E. Dodge
Deep-water drilling for oil already has begun off the coast of Cuba,
barely 55 miles away from the United States. There is significant threat
to the U.S. ocean and coastal natural and economic resources from spills
and releases as a result of these oil drilling and production
activities. The U.S. government and scientific community have the
capacity to get ahead of this potential disaster.
Needed are appropriate funding and the political will to enable and to
coordinate an appropriate response. In the past year we have learned
much from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the largest in the nation's
history. However, drilling in Cuban waters will occur in a different
oceanographic and ecological milieu. The setting is singular in the
world and poses new and severe chronic risks to our beloved and
important shores, ecology, and coastal economy.
The locations of the proposed drill sites are very close to, or even
beneath, the Gulfstream. This major current system would transport
pollutants (introducing spilled oil, associated drilling products, and
chemical dispersants) on the ocean surface or via rising plumes of
subsurface oil. Releases could be episodic and massive or chronic and
There would be substantial injury and damage to vital interests of the
United States, including beaches, recreational and tourism industries,
desalination plants, ports and harbors, and marine and coastal
ecosystems. The initial impact could well be to our iconic coral reef
system, important fisheries and their breeding grounds, sea grass,
mangroves, coral, and habitat for rare and endangered species (birds,
sea turtles, and marine mammals, including manatees).
The Florida Reef tract extends 360 miles from the Dry Tortugas to the
west to Martin County to the north. It comprises up to 84 percent of the
nation's coral reefs and is already under numerous environmental
stresses. Florida's coastal and ocean economies contribute $592 billion
to the state's gross domestic product.
Nearly half of that activity (and 3.4 million jobs) are from the
Atlantic Coast counties that will be most immediately impacted by a
major spill. Ecosystems off the Carolinas and northward are also at risk.
In its final report on the Deepwater Horizons event, the U.S. Coast
Guard notes that effective preparedness begins before drilling starts
and urges: "If the public and Congress expect significant improvements
in this nation's ability to respond to catastrophic oil spills,
additional funding will be needed for improvements, which include
research and development… [to] effectively address an offshore Spill of
The proximity to the U.S. coast of the drilling operation off Cuba and
the Bahamas, and the fact that it is outside the oversight and control
of U.S. regulators or responders, makes preparation an extremely urgent
priority. We suggest the following:
• Improved monitoring. This would provide the earliest notice of chronic
impacts of drilling and production as well as from a massive spill.
Monitoring would use remote and in situ sensing for detection, mapping,
and sampling of the surface and sub-surface.
• Establishing biological and oceanographic baseline measurements. The
resulting data are critical for spill-impact assessment, associated
claim actions, and for providing data for predictive models.
• Determining toxicity levels of oil, dispersed oil, and their
degradation products. This would allow understanding of effects on
keystone reef and other organisms, including corals, octocorals,
sponges, and fishes, vital to preparing mitigation response that may use
Using Oceanographic 3-D high-resolution current models for the
entrainment, transport, and detrainment of spilled oil. This would be
coupled with bioecological models to predict effects to organisms under
We urge the creation of a scientific consortium to address gaps in
information and to better prepare for any problems.
Our Florida institutions have in-depth expertise, local knowledge, and
data to be most effective in our unique oceanic and coastal
environments. These institutions include Florida International
University, Nova Southeastern University, the University of Miami,
NOAA's South Florida regional science laboratories and centers, private
industry, the Florida Coastal Ocean Observing System, and the Southeast
Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association.
This list can easily be expanded to include other Florida industries and
Fortunately, our congressional delegation understands what is at stake,
as evidenced by its leadership and tough questions during a recent
fact-finding hearing. Federal agency will is now needed to provide
funding and true government coordination for these activities so that
the nation is better prepared and protected.
John R. Proni is executive director of the Applied Research Center at
Florida International University. Richard E. Dodge is dean of the
Oceanographic Center at Nova Southeastern University and executive
director of NSU's National Coral Reef Institute. Together they developed
testimony that Proni presented during a recent congressional hearings
held in South Florida. This piece is based in part on that testimony.