By News Desk on May 9, 2011 8:51 AM
For more than 50 years, Cuba and the US have been at loggerheads over just about everything. But now, as Platts’ Leslie Moore Mirra spells out in this week’s Platts Oilgram News column “New Frontiers,” it is the threat of an oil spill from drilling in Cuban waters that may lead the two sides to begin talking about at least one area of common interest.
Could the prospect of a foul oil spill between the US and Cuba bring the two together?
The US Treasury Department in late April granted a special license to the International Association of Drilling Contractors that would permit Cubans to attend a conference hosted by a US-based organization in Trinidad–a request that was months in the making and on which the IADC spent about $50,000 worth of “time and talent” trying to make happen, the group’s director Lee Hunt said last week in an interview.
As Cuba nudges closer to deepwater oil exploration in its Gulf of Mexico waters some 50 miles from Florida shores, concerns are growing as to whether the island nation would be prepared to handle an oil spill.
As soon as the Saipem-manufactured Scarabeo rig arrives for Repsol’s deepwater exploration venture in Cuba waters, a number of political reactions will be generated, said Cuba energy consultant Jorge Pinon.
But others are skeptical that there will be much change at all. “We need to engage the Cubans but we can’t,” said Brian Petty, a senior vice president for government affairs at IADC.
Cuba is seen as holding rigorous oil spill standards modeled after the UK and Norway, but observers are also making noises that Cuba ought to be a party to the broad “MexUS” agreement.
The agreement followed the 1979 Ixtoc oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the result of which tarred both the Texas and Mexican coastlines. In the months-long oil spill, hundreds of aerial missions dropped a chemical dispersant over the Gulf of Mexico.
MexUS establishes standard operational procedures “to coordinate bilateral responses to pollution incidents that occur in, or threaten, coastal waters or areas of the border zones between Mexico and the US and that could affect or threaten the marine environment of both parties,” according to a copy of the MexUS agreement posted on the US Environmental Protection Agency‘s website.
While heavy on organizational flow charts, MexUS does articulate a joint response plan in the case of a Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
For example, “response operations will be coordinated when both countries agree. Response objectives are to prevent, control, mitigate or eliminate the threat of an incident, to minimize adverse effects to the marine environment and to protect public health and welfare,” the plan says.
In case of a spill, the two countries would form a joint task force responsible for decisions.
Despite the document’s formality and flow charts, some wonder if it would actually impose the structure or put up the money necessary for a cleanup.
“On paper, it looks to be an effective regime but to be honest in practice I can’t tell if there are serious problems with it,” said Richard McLaughin, who oversees marine policy and law at the Harte Research Institute’s Gulf of Mexico studies. Is MexUS “effective or window-dressing, no one knows,” McLaughlin said. “You have to see how it’s implemented on the ground,” he said.
Another line of inquiry that McLaughlin wants to probe is whether it might not be time to update the agreement and incorporate private entities such as the Marine Well Containment Company and the Helix Energy Solutions Group, both of which aim to provide quick emergency access to containment equipment used in the Macondo oil spill. But Charlie Engelmann, a spokesman for ExxonMobil, said that for now MWCC “is designed to respond to an incident in the US Gulf of Mexico.”
The US Coast Guard’s Corpus Christi, Texas, unit, which would respond to a Gulf oil spill, was not available for comment.
Further complicating the Gulf of Mexico picture could be the Bahamas, now emerging as a potential oil explorer, Petty said. As they gear up and offer offshore resources near Florida waters “it’s going to set Ileana Ros’ hair on fire,” Petty said of Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
She has introduced legislation aimed at halting Cuba oil exploration near Florida waters.
Given righteous Cuban-Americans firmly opposed to the end of the US embargo on Cuba, some doubt that even the administration of President Barack Obama will move to embrace Cuba into a MexUS protocol. “You have some strong headwinds against doing anything,” Petty said. “It’s tough…it’s the power of a political community that’s wealthy and influential and votes,” Petty said.
For now, however, the IADC seems pleased with a small opening provided by the administration’s allowing a Cuba environmental official to attend the IADC’s environmental meeting later this week in Trinidad. “We’re hoping others will come,” Petty said, adding that the US license granted would allow other Cubans to attend, too.–Leslie Moore Mira in New York