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APNewsBreak: US oil spill plan prepares for Cuba >>> “show me the Plan”

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By JENNIFER KAY, Associated Press – 2 days ago

MIAMI (AP) — If a future oil spill in the Caribbean Sea threatens American shores, a new federal plan obtained by The Associated Press would hinge on cooperation from neighboring foreign governments. Now that Cuba is the neighbor drilling for oil, cooperation is hard to guarantee.

The International Offshore Response Plan draws on lessons from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and was created to stop offshore oil spills as close to their source as possible, even in foreign waters. The plan dated Jan. 30 has not been released publicly. The AP obtained a copy through a Freedom of Information Act request.

After crude oil stained Gulf Coast beaches, state and federal officials are eager to head off even the perception of oil spreading toward the coral reefs, beaches and fishing that generate tens of billions of tourist dollars for Florida alone.

The plan comes as Spanish oil company Repsol YPF conducts exploratory drilling in Cuban waters and the Bahamas considers similar development for next year. Complicating any oil spill response in the Florida Straits, though, is the half-century of tension between the U.S. and its communist neighbor 90 miles south of Florida.

Under the plan dated Jan. 30, the Coast Guard’s Miami-based 7th District would take the lead in responding to a spill affecting U.S. waters, which includes Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The district’s operations cover 15,000 miles of coastline and share borders with 34 foreign countries and territories.

Repsol’s operations in Cuban waters are not subject to U.S. authority, but the company allowed U.S. officials to inspect its rig and review its own oil spill response plan.

“We’ve demonstrated already and we continue to demonstrate that we’re a safe, responsible operator doing all in its power to carry out a transparent and safe operation,” Respol spokesman Kristian Rix said Thursday.

Rix declined to elaborate on the company’s response plans, but he did say two minor recommendations made by U.S. officials inspecting the rig were immediately put in place.

If an oil spill began in Cuban waters, Cuba would be responsible for any spill cleanup and efforts to prevent damage to the U.S., but the Coast Guard would respond as close as possible.

Though a 50-year-old embargo bars most American companies from conducting business with Cuba and limits communication between the two governments, the Coast Guard and private response teams have licenses from the U.S. government to work with Cuba and its partners if a disaster arises.

The U.S. and Cuba have joined Mexico, the Bahamas and Jamaica since November in multilateral discussions about how the countries would notify each other about offshore drilling problems, said Capt. John Slaughter, chief of planning, readiness, and response for the 7th District.

He said channels do exist for U.S. and Cuban officials to communicate about spills, including the Caribbean Island Oil Pollution Response and Cooperation Plan. That’s a nonbinding agreement, though, so the Coast Guard has begun training crews already monitoring the Cuban coastline for drug and migrant smuggling to keep an eye out for problems on the Repsol rig.

William Reilly, co-chairman of the national commission on the Deepwater Horizon spill and head of the EPA during President George H.W. Bush, said the Coast Guard generated goodwill in Cuba by notifying its government of potential risks to the island during the 2010 spill.

It would be hard for the Cuban government to keep any spill secret if Repsol and other private companies were responding, Slaughter said.

“Even if we assume the darkest of dark and that the Cuban government wouldn’t notify us, we’d hear through industry chatter and talk. If the companies were notified, I’m quite confident we would get a phone call before they fly out their assets,” he said.

Funding for a U.S. response to a foreign spill would come from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund managed by the Coast Guard. As of Feb. 29, that fund contained $2.4 billion.

The plan covers many lessons learned from the 2010 spill, like maintaining a roster of “vessels of opportunity” for hire and making sure the ships that are skimming and burning oil offshore can store or treat oily water for extended periods of time. Other tactics, like laying boom, have been adapted for the strong Gulf Stream current flowing through the Florida Straits.

What the plan doesn’t cover is the research on how an oil spill might behave in the straits, said Florida International University professor John Proni, who’s leading a group of university and federal researchers studying U.S. readiness for oil spills.

Among the unknowns are the effect of dispersants on corals and mangroves, how oil travels in the major currents, the toxicity of Cuban and how to determine whether oil washing ashore in the U.S. came from Cuba.

“My view is that the Coast Guard has developed a good plan but it’s based on existing information,” so it’s incomplete, he said.

Former Amoco Oil Latin America president Jorge Pinon, now an oil expert at the University of Texas, said the Coast Guard had a solid plan.

He cautioned against recent congressional legislation introduced by one of South Florida’s three Cuban-American representatives to curtail drilling off Cuba by sanctioning those who help them do it. The bill is sponsored by Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami.

Instead, Pinon said the U.S. needs to formalize agreements with Cuba about who would be in command if an oil well blew, because the U.S. has more resources available.

“The issue is not to stop the spill from reaching Florida waters, the issue is capping the well and shutting it down,” Pinon said. “We can play defense all we want, but we don’t want to play defense, we want to play offense, we want to cap the well.”

Reilly said the U.S. still needs to issue permits for equipment in the U.S. that would be needed if a Cuban well blew, Reilly said. For example, if a blowout occurred, the company would have to get a capping stack from Scotland, which could take up to a week.

“We know from Macondo that a great deal can happen in a week,” Reilly said. “I’ve been very concerned about getting the sanctions interpreted in a way that permits us to exercise some common sense.”

Copyright © 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Cuba drills for oil, but U.S. unprepared for spill

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By William Booth, Published: March 1

As energy companies from Spain, Russia and Malaysia line up to drill for oil in Cuban waters 60 miles from the Florida Keys, U.S. agencies are struggling to cobble together emergency plans to protect fragile reefs, sandy beaches and a multibillion-dollar tourism industry in the event of a spill.

Drawing up contingency plans to confront a possible spill is much more difficult because of the economic embargo against Cuba. U.S. law bars most American companies — including oil services and spill containment contractors — from conducting business with the communist island. The embargo, now entering its 50th year, also limits direct government-to-government talks.

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“We need to figure out what we can do to inflict maximum pain, maximum punishment, to bleed Repsol of whatever resources they may have if there’s a potential for a spill that would affect the U.S. coast,” Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.) told in January a congressional subcommittee that oversees the U.S. Coast Guard.

An unusual coalition of U.S. environmentalists and oil industry executives have joined forces to push the White House to treat the threat of a spill seriously, while tamping down the anti-Castro rhetoric.

“There is no point in opposing drilling in Cuba. They are drilling. And so now we should be working together to prevent disaster,” said Daniel Whittle, Cuba program director of the Environmental Defense Fund, who has been brokering meetings between Cuban and U.S. officials.

Environmentalists applauded the announcement last week of an agreement between the United States and Mexico to allow for joint inspection of rigs operating in the Gulf of Mexico and the establishment of a common set of safety protocols between the two countries.

Nothing approaching this exists with the Cubans.

Because of the embargo, the talks between Cubans, Repsol and the Coast Guard are taking place in the Bahamas and Curacao — not Havana or Miami — under the auspices of the U.N. International Maritime Organization, paid for by charitable donations from environmental groups and oil industry associations.

A single Florida company is licensed to deliver oil dispersants to Havana. But there are no U.S. aircraft with contracts or permission to fly over Cuban waters. The current plan is to retrofit and deploy aging crop dusters from Cuban farms to dump the dispersants.

Obstacles to a cleanup

Repsol operates leases in U.S. waters in the Gulf of Mexico and has a staff of 300 based in Houston. But because of the embargo, none of the Houston staff is permitted to have anything to do with the Repsol operation in Cuba. Any assistance would have to come from Madrid.

Because of the embargo, and to protect Repsol from economic sanctions, no more than 10 percent of the components on the Scarabeo 9 drilling rig may be manufactured in the United States.

One of those components is the blowout preventer, a vital piece of safety equipment manufactured by National Oilwell Varco in Houston — whose employees cannot service the equipment while it is in Cuban waters.

If a blowout occurred, Repsol would have to await delivery of a capping stack, which would have to travel from Scotland to Cuba and then out to the rig. Experts predict it would take a week at minimum.

Cleanup crews arriving from the United States would be allowed to skim oil from the water and collect surplus oil gushing from the rig, but they’d have to take it someplace. The question is where? The U.S. tankers can’t enter Cuban territorial waters, and if they do, they are prohibited from returning to the United States for six months. The recovered oil would belong to Cuba, and so it can’t travel to the United States.

Modeling of ocean currents by the USGS suggests a spill at the Repsol exploratory well site probably would not affect the Florida Keys but would be swept north by the powerful flow of the Gulf Stream and then begin to deposit oil on beaches from Miami to North Carolina.

“If anything went really wrong out there, I believe there would be a quick political response,” said William K. Reilly, co-chairman of the national commission on the Deepwater spill and head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George H.W. Bush.

But a lot can happen in a couple of days, Reilly said. “It’s time to face reality. It is, completely, in the interest of the United States that we get this right.”

“This is a disaster waiting to happen, and the Obama administration has abdicated its role in protecting our environment and national security by allowing this plan to move forward,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Ros-Lehtinen and her colleagues sponsored legislation to deny visas to anyone who helps the Cubans advance their oil drilling plans. They have also sought to punish Repsol.

“We need to figure out what we can do to inflict maximum pain, maximum punishment, to bleed Repsol of whatever resources they may have if there’s a potential for a spill that would affect the U.S. coast,” Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.) told in January a congressional subcommittee that oversees the U.S. Coast Guard.

An unusual coalition of U.S. environmentalists and oil industry executives have joined forces to push the White House to treat the threat of a spill seriously, while tamping down the anti-Castro rhetoric.

“There is no point in opposing drilling in Cuba. They are drilling. And so now we should be working together to prevent disaster,” said Daniel Whittle, Cuba program director of the Environmental Defense Fund, who has been brokering meetings between Cuban and U.S. officials.

Environmentalists applauded the announcement last week of an agreement between the United States and Mexico to allow for joint inspection of rigs operating in the Gulf of Mexico and the establishment of a common set of safety protocols between the two countries.

Nothing approaching this exists with the Cubans.

Because of the embargo, the talks between Cubans, Repsol and the Coast Guard are taking place in the Bahamas and Curacao — not Havana or Miami — under the auspices of the U.N. International Maritime Organization, paid for by charitable donations from environmental groups and oil industry associations.

A single Florida company is licensed to deliver oil dispersants to Havana. But there are no U.S. aircraft with contracts or permission to fly over Cuban waters. The current plan is to retrofit and deploy aging crop dusters from Cuban farms to dump the dispersants.

Obstacles to a cleanup

Repsol operates leases in U.S. waters in the Gulf of Mexico and has a staff of 300 based in Houston. But because of the embargo, none of the Houston staff is permitted to have anything to do with the Repsol operation in Cuba. Any assistance would have to come from Madrid.

Because of the embargo, and to protect Repsol from economic sanctions, no more than 10 percent of the components on the Scarabeo 9 drilling rig may be manufactured in the United States.

One of those components is the blowout preventer, a vital piece of safety equipment manufactured by National Oilwell Varco in Houston — whose employees cannot service the equipment while it is in Cuban waters.

If a blowout occurred, Repsol would have to await delivery of a capping stack, which would have to travel from Scotland to Cuba and then out to the rig. Experts predict it would take a week at minimum.

Cleanup crews arriving from the United States would be allowed to skim oil from the water and collect surplus oil gushing from the rig, but they’d have to take it someplace. The question is where? The U.S. tankers can’t enter Cuban territorial waters, and if they do, they are prohibited from returning to the United States for six months. The recovered oil would belong to Cuba, and so it can’t travel to the United States.

Modeling of ocean currents by the USGS suggests a spill at the Repsol exploratory well site probably would not affect the Florida Keys but would be swept north by the powerful flow of the Gulf Stream and then begin to deposit oil on beaches from Miami to North Carolina.

“If anything went really wrong out there, I believe there would be a quick political response,” said William K. Reilly, co-chairman of the national commission on the Deepwater spill and head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George H.W. Bush.

But a lot can happen in a couple of days, Reilly said. “It’s time to face reality. It is, completely, in the interest of the United States that we get this right.”

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Obama Hits Iran-Venezuela Ties. Now What?

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Posted By José R. Cárdenas

One certainly hopes that President Obama’s recent criticism of Iran-Venezuela relations indicates a new willingness on the part of his administration to confront the growing menace of the radical Islamist regime in the Western Hemisphere.

In comments submitted to the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, the president said that Hugo Chávez‘s ties to Iran “have not served the interests of Venezuela or the Venezuelan people” and expressed concern about his anti-democratic behavior and his failure “to contribute to the security in the region.”

“Here in the Americas,” he said, “we take Iranian activities, including in Venezuela, very seriously and we will continue to monitor them closely.”

The president’s comments came on the heels of further explosive revelations on the extent of Iranian subversion of U.S. interests in the region.  Earlier this month, the Spanish-language network Univision aired an investigative documentary,“The Iranian Threat” — the product of months of research — that included incriminating information on Venezuelan and Iranian diplomats in Mexico discussing waging cyberattacks on sensitive U.S. computer systems, including those of nuclear power plants.

Shortly thereafter, U.S. law enforcement officials revealed details of an investigation into a Lebanese bank in Canada that laid out Hezbollah’s sophisticated global money-laundering operations that includes direct involvement by senior officials in the lucrative South American  drug trade.  The revelations put the lie to the State Department’s long-repeated talking point that Hezbollah merely “raises funds” in Latin America for its operations in the Middle East.

Both reports drew sharp reactions from Capitol Hill, where a number of members have expressed deep dissatisfaction with the direction of the administration’s regional policy.  Senator Bob Menéndez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said he would hold hearings on Iran’s destructive role in the region when the Senate reconvenes in 2012.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said she would request the State Department to conduct its own investigation “into Iran’s deeply troubling partnerships with regional dictators such as Chavez, Morales, Correa, Ortega and the Castro brothers.”

(It bears noting as well that in the Nov. 22 Republican presidential candidates’ National Security Debate, the threat posed by radical Islam operating in the Western Hemisphere was featured prominently as a national security issue that official Washington was neglecting.)

Thankfully, it appears the steady drumbeat of concern about Iran and their Hezbollah proxies’ strategic push into the Americas has finally caught the White House’s attention.   To date, U.S. law enforcement agencies have had to confront this threat virtually alone.  It is time the entire Executive Branch foreign policy apparatus joins in, including the slumbering State Department.

Most importantly, it is time for ramping up actions to back up the president’s words.   This includes not only identifying more individuals, companies, and/or governments found to be aiding and abetting Iran and Hezbollah in their nefarious activities and bringing the full weight of sanctions against them, but also conducting a full-bore public diplomacy campaign for regional audiences on Iran’s intentions and activities in the region and the dangers for their societies therein.

To date, consorting with Iran has been a freebie for anti-American demagogues like Chávez, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.  The administration needs to move now to raise the costs.

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Cuba Oil Drilling Tests U.S. on Protecting Florida or Embargo

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By Katarzyna Klimasinska

Dec. 8 (Bloomberg) — Four U.S. inspectors armed with safety glasses and notebooks will set out on a mission next month to protect Florida’s beaches from a Cuban threat.

They’ll rendezvous in Trinidad and Tobago with the Scarabeo 9, a rig headed to deep waters off Cuba to drill for oil about 70 miles (113 kilometers) south of Florida’s Key West.

Repsol YPF SA is making the Scarabeo 9 available to the U.S. inspectors before the rig starts drilling closer to Florida than the BP Plc well that failed last year in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the biggest U.S. offshore oil spill. The exploration poses an environmental, political and diplomatic challenge to the U.S. more than 50 years after cutting off relations with Cuba’s communist regime.

The Obama administration’s dilemma is “what steps to take for environmental protection and how much to honor current Cuba policy,” Dan Whittle, Cuba program director at the New York- based Environmental Defense Fund, said in an interview.

In the aftermath of the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, the U.S. banned exports to Cuba in 1960, withdrew diplomatic recognition, backed the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and imposed a full trade embargo in 1962.

Now generations of animosity between the two nations limit cooperation on safety standards and cleanup precautions for the Cuba drilling planned by Madrid-based Repsol, which would be followed by state-owned companies from Malaysia to Venezuela. A conference on regional oil-spill response being held this week in Nassau, Bahamas, may provide a forum for discussions by U.S. and Cuban representatives.

Juan Jacomino, a spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section at the Swiss embassy in Washington, declined in an interview to comment on drilling off of the island nation.

Spare Parts

Repsol can use the Scarabeo 9 without violating the U.S. trade embargo because it was built at shipyards in China and Singapore, and fewer than 10 percent of its components are American, according to its owner, Eni SpA.

The sanctions would block spare parts from the U.S. for the rig’s blowout preventer, a safety device that failed in the BP spill. The restrictions also require Helix Energy Solutions Group Inc. of Houston, which provides oil-spill containment equipment for Repsol in the Gulf of Mexico, to seek a waiver to do so in Cuban waters in case of an accident.

U.S. companies seeking to do business with Cuba must ask the Commerce Department, which considers most applications “subject to a policy of denial,” the agency says on its website. The Treasury Department weighs requests to travel from the U.S. to Cuba.

Granting too few permits for spill prevention and response would keep contractors from offering the technology and services developed after the BP spill, Lee Hunt, president of the Houston-based International Association of Drilling Contractors, said in an interview.

Cuban Exiles

Approving too many licenses would undermine the embargo, enriching a regime listed by the U.S. State Department as a nation supporting terrorism along with Iran, Sudan and Syria, according to anti-Castro lawmakers such as Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

U.S. “assistance, guidance and technical advice” to Repsol, including the planned visit to Scarabeo 9, may violate the law by “helping to facilitate” the company’s work and providing the Cuban government “with a financial windfall,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a Nov. 1 letter to President Barack Obama.

Ros-Lehtinen, who immigrated from Cuba with her family at age 8, is a leader among Cuban exiles in South Florida who have opposed easing U.S. restrictions. Florida, which has been a swing state in presidential elections, also has been a bastion of opposition to oil drilling that opponents say could despoil the beaches that are a prime draw for tourists.

Florida Drilling Foes

Lawmakers such as Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, have fought to keep drilling out of U.S. waters in the eastern Gulf of Mexico bordering Florida.

Nelson and Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, introduced a bill Nov. 9 that would require foreign companies drilling in Cuban waters to pay for damage to U.S. territory without liability limits. Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, joined as a cosponsor.

Oil from BP’s spill tarred beaches 150 miles away in Florida’s northwestern Panhandle.

Now Floridians are faced with drilling under the jurisdiction of Cubans, who “don’t have the resources” to control a blowout, Jorge Pinon, an energy consultant and visiting research fellow at the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami, said in an interview.

“If the U.S. is not willing to help” in an emergency, “the resources are going to come from Canada, Norway and the U.K., and it will take a very long time,” said Pinon, who led Amoco Corp. units in Mexico City and retired from BP in 2003, according to his biography.

Repsol’s Contract

Repsol signed a contract with Cuba in 2000, according to the company’s website, and confirmed the presence of oil with a Norwegian rig in 2004. Repsol will drill in about 5,000 feet (1.5 kilometers) to 6,000 feet of water, about the depth of BP’s Macondo well, according to Pinon.

Petroliam Nasional Bhd., or Petronas, based in Kuala Lumpur; New Delhi-based Oil & Natural Gas Corp.; Hanoi-based Vietnam Oil & Gas Group, known as PetroVietnam; Caracas-based Petroleos de Venezuela SA; and Sonangol SA of Luanda, Angola, also hold Cuban blocks, Pinon said.

U.S. officials say they are doing all they can to ensure safe drilling off Cuba.

“We are quite focused, and have been for many, many months” on “doing anything within our power to protect U.S. shores and U.S. coastline,” Tommy Beaudreau, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, an industry regulator, said in a Nov. 29 interview at Bloomberg’s Washington office.

Wild Well Control

The administration has issued some licenses to U.S. companies to respond to a spill in Cuban waters, Mark Toner, a spokesman for the State Department, said in an e-mail. He didn’t say how many have been approved, and the Commerce and Treasury departments didn’t respond to e-mailed requests for comment.

Wild Well Control Inc. of Houston is one permit recipient, according to Hunt of the drilling contractors’ trade group. The company didn’t respond to e-mails and phone calls seeking comment.

“Helix plans to build a new subsea containment cap to safeguard drilling operations in Cuba,” Cameron Wallace, a spokesman for that company said in an e-mail about its request for U.S. licenses. “The cap and associated equipment will be staged at a U.S. port near to the drilling site to minimize response time.”

Walking the Deck

In their visit to the Scarabeo 9, two inspectors from the U.S. Coast Guard and two from the Interior Department will walk the deck and check generators, the positioning system and firefighting equipment, Brian Khey, who will be on the team, said in an interview.

The Americans will watch a firefighting simulation and conduct an abandon-ship drill, according to Khey, the supervisor at the Coast Guard’s Outer Continental Shelf National Center of Expertise in Morgan City, Louisiana,

While the visitors will discuss with Repsol any deficiencies they find, they won’t have enforcement powers, Khey said. Nor will they be able to check the blowout preventer or the well casing and drilling fluid that will be used on site, according to the Interior Department.

Scarabeo 9 was built “according to the latest and most advanced international standards available at the time of her design and construction,” Rome-based Eni said in an e-mailed statement. “Health, safety and environmental protection are always a top priority.”

Eni Subsidiary

The vessel “is one of the very few units in the industry which is using a technology which is not an American one,” Pietro Franco Tali, chief executive officer of Eni’s oilfield- services subsidiary, Saipem SpA, said on an Oct. 27, 2010, conference call.

One U.S. component is the blowout preventer, made by Houston-based National Oilwell Varco Inc. The company hasn’t applied for a license to do business with Cuba and doesn’t plan to, Chief Financial Officer Clay Williams said in a phone interview.

That means rig operators will have to seek training and spare parts in Europe or Asia, according to Hunt, whose group represents 1,494 companies including Saipem.

“It’s like buying a Mercedes and being told you have to go to a Ford dealer for parts,” Hunt said in an interview.

The results of Cuba’s drilling may affect U.S. energy policy. Success would put pressure on the U.S. to open its waters surrounding Florida for exploration, Pinon said.

A serious accident off of Cuba could throw the industry out of the Gulf of Mexico, according to Brian Petty, executive vice president for governmental affairs of the drilling contractors’ group.

“A mess” in Cuban waters would lead critics of drilling to say, “Stop it, don’t let it go on anywhere,” Petty said.

–With assistance from Nicole Gaouette in Washington and Nguyen Dieu Tu Uyen in Hanoi. Editors: Judy Pasternak, Larry Liebert

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Liebert at lliebert@bloomberg.net

Anti-Castro Cuban Americans Fret Over Drilling Rig

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Scarabeo 9

by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Nov 4, 2011 (IPS) – With a giant deep-water oil rig steaming slowly toward the Gulf of Mexico and the waters just off Cuba, the administration of President Barack Obama is being pushed and pulled by different interests over what, if anything, to do about it.

On the one hand, anti-Castro Cuban-American and other right-wing lawmakers here are expressing growing exasperation over what they see as Washington’s failure to do whatever it can to prevent the new, 750-million-dollar Scarabeo 9 from fulfilling its mission to begin exploratory drilling off the island’s northwest coast by early next year.

They appear increasingly worried that the rig, which will be operated initially by the Spanish oil company, Repsol-YPF, may find commercially exploitable quantities of oil under Cuba’s waters and thus provide a “windfall” for Havana that will be used to help sustain the Communist government led by President Raul Castro.

On the other hand, some environmental and anti-embargo groups, including business associations that want to increase trade with Havana, are calling on Obama to engage the Cuban government more directly in the interests of both protecting the Gulf’s ecology from a possible spill and ensuring that U.S. oil service companies will be able to help contain the damage should such an accident take place.

Less than 18 months after the Deepwater Horizon blow-out that sent nearly five million barrels of oil pouring into the Gulf over a three-month period, they argue that Washington should work closely with both the Cuban government and Repsol, as well as other third- country companies that will operate the rig, to both minimise the risk of a similar accident and contain its impact if there is one.

So far, the administration appears to be trying to steer a middle course, satisfying neither side.

The U.S. Geological Service estimates that there could be undiscovered reserves of up to six billion barrels of oil under Cuban waters only 100 kms from the Florida Keys, while others have suggested there could be as much as several times that amount.

And while it would take at least a couple of years before those reserves could be tapped commercially, they would provide a huge boost to the struggling Cuban economy, which currently depends on the largess of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for more than two-thirds of its daily crude oil requirements.

“We are extremely concerned over what seems to be a lack of a coordinated effort by the Administration to prevent a State Sponsor of Terrorism, just 90 miles form our shores, from engaging in risky deep sea oil drilling projects that will harm U.S. interests as well as extend another economic lifeline to the Cuban regime,” complained four Cuban-American congressmen in a letter to Obama earlier this week.

They demanded, among other things, that the administration investigate whether any part of the Scarabeo has been made with U.S.- origin parts in violation of the 49-year-old U.S. trade embargo, and whether Obama’s own Interior Department may itself be violating the law by providing Repsol with technical advice.

“The administration needs to provide answers and change course,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, one of the four lawmakers and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who in September also helped persuade 35 of her House colleagues to sign a letter to Repsol’s chairman urging him to immediately halt the company’s plans to drill.

The signatories included most lawmakers from Florida whose Gulf coast would almost certainly be affected by any spill originating in the drilling area.

Repsol has become the main target of Congressional opposition to the project primarily because it is the only publicly-traded company with substantial investments in the U.S. in a multinational consortium that includes the state oil companies of Malaysia, Brazil, Norway, Angola, and several other countries.

Repsol, which has issued repeated assurances that the rig’s operation and equipment will meet U.S. standards, has agreed to permit a team from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) to inspect the Scarabeo and its drilling equipment when it reaches Trinidad and Tobago later this month.

While that inspection won’t be as comprehensive as Washington would like, BSEE director Michael Bromwich told a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Congressional Wednesday, “In our judgement, it’s a lot better than nothing.”

The administration is also using the multilateral International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to have its Coast Guard officers sit down with Cuban and other officials from the northern Caribbean next month to discuss measures for dealing with spills under the 1990 International Convention on Oil Pollution, Preparedness, Response and Cooperation (OPRC).

In fact, the 750-million-dollar Scarabeo is considered pretty much state of the art. It was designed by Norwegian engineers; its structure was built in China; and it was fitted with the latest deep- water drilling technology in Singapore.

But the fear of a major accident has prompted a number of environmental groups and independent experts to urge the administration to become significantly more engaged with both the Cuban government and all of the companies that will be operating the rig.

In particular, they want the administration to issue a general license for U.S. oil services companies to work in Cuba, which would permit them to respond quickly to any spill or related emergency resulting from drilling operations. Under the trade embargo, each company would have to apply for a special license to do so.

“We are very naïve to think that, in the case of Cuba, a handful of individual exports licenses could prevent and contain a deepwater oil exploratory well blow-out,” Jorge Pinon, a former oil executive and consultant at Florida International University, told the Subcommittee.

“A general license to export and supply equipment, personnel and services to international oil companies operating in Cuba in the case of an emergency is urgently needed,” he stressed, noting that more than 5,000 vessels, millions of metres of booms; and nearly eight million litres of dispersant were deployed to contain the Deepwater Horizon spill.

That message was echoed by Daniel Whittle, who directs the Cuba programme at the Environmental Defense Fund and who organized a delegation headed by President George H.W. Bush’s environment chief, William Reilly, that visited Cuba earlier this year. Reilly was the co-chairman of the national commission that investigated the Deepwater disaster.

“First and foremost, the administration should take steps now to ensure that U.S.-based companies are pre-authorized to assist in preventing and containing major oil spills in Cuban waters,” he testified.

“It’s critical to get U.S. companies into the act because of their technology, know-how, and proximity,” agreed Jake Colvin, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), a business lobby that represents major multi-national corporations here. “While the administration has the authority to license a rapid response by those companies in the event of an accident, it hasn’t yet authorized it.”

“The reason they’re not issuing a general license is entirely political,” according to Sarah Stephen, the director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas, which has lobbied against the embargo and last summer published a booklet on Cuba’s drilling plans.

“The administration clearly understands the urgency here, but it’s worried about the pressure from Congress, especially from the Floridians,” she said.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.

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