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Cuban Offshore Drilling an Unsettling Backdrop for Obama Visit to Florida


The Scarabeo 9 drilling rig, owned by the Spanish company Repsol, started deepwater drilling off the coast of Cuba in January.(Repsol)

Scarabeo 9 is the name of Cuba’s first deepwater oil rig, which began drilling 70 miles south of the Florida Keys last month. Spanish oil company Repsol is drilling deeper than BP’s Deepwater Horizon well and almost as close to U.S. shores, which could be disastrous to the Florida coast in the event of a blowout, especially in light of a half-century-old embargo.

While President Obama is not likely to bring up this controversial issue when he speaks about energy in Miami on Thursday, energy experts and some U.S. lawmakers say the United States could be more proactive in either preventing a spill or stopping the operations entirely.


Washington’s Cold War-era embargo on Cuba, which turned 50 earlier this month, allows some exceptions for the import of U.S. food and medicine for humanitarian reasons, but it still makes it extremely difficult for the U.S. to respond to a spill not far from its shores.

Without special licenses from the Commerce and Treasury departments, U.S. companies that would work to contain or clean up any spill in Cuban waters are banned from doing any work there. So far, the U.S. government has issued several such licenses, but not nearly enough in the event of a major spill. It took thousands of ships to respond to the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. According to the International Association of Drilling Contractors, less than 5 percent of the resources used to cap BP’s Macondo well could be leveraged by Cuba at the moment.

The only thing that the U.S. can do, it has already done, says Michael Bromwich, former director of the Interior Department’s offshore oversight arm who now advises the Center for Strategic & International Studies on energy issues.


“The U.S. is obviously in an awkward position,” Bromwich told National Journal on Wednesday, detailing the limited U.S. involvement in advance of the drilling that began in waters up to 6,000 feet deep off Cuba’s coast last month. “I don’t know that there’s a whole lot that can be done now.”

About a year ago, Repsol reached out to the Interior Department about its plans to drill off the coast of Cuba. Since then, Bromwich said that the Spanish company has been “extremely cooperative” and is seen by U.S. regulators as acting responsibly. Last month, Coast Guard and Interior officials were able to board and review the Scarabeo 9 rig when it was off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago, finding it to “generally comply with existing international and U.S. standards.”

The review was limited, Bromwich explained, but it was all they could do. Normally, rig inspections are done on-site, but due to the embargo, U.S. officials could only access the rig outside of Cuban waters.

“There are, to be sure, limitations on the comprehensiveness of the review,” he said, explaining that tests on the well's blowout preventer—a critical device that failed in the BP accident—need to be conducted when the rig is already in place, which was not an option in this case.


“I think that what we did was valuable,” Bromwich said.  “It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than nothing.”

Some experts say that the United States could do more to protect against a catastrophic oil spill.

Florida International University professor John Proni, who testified at a congressional subcommittee hearing held in Sunny Isles, Fla., last month, said that a spill-response plan from the U.S. Coast Guard is not enough, as it would only go into effect in the event of a spill.

Proni says that there are other preventative measures to be taken aside from the limited inspection of Repsol’s rig. Proni and his colleague Richard Dodge, who heads up Nova Southeastern University’s Oceanographic Center, have presented a more proactive plan that would require the government to gather more data about the ocean currents, coral reefs, and oil releases surrounding the Cuban operations. By taking such measurements now, the government and spill-responders would be better informed in the event of a spill. And all of this could be done without relaxing the embargo on Cuba, Proni says.

The problem is, no one has taken up the plan. Proni and Dodge have visited multiple U.S. agencies seeking to move this forward, but to no avail.

“Everyone agrees that this is a very important problem, but they can’t decide whose jurisdiction it can be,” Proni told National Journal. Instead, he said, the agencies just keep “pointing to each other.”

“They don’t know how to put it in their charter and to put the funding toward it,” he said.

Next week, he and Dodge plan to come back to Washington to stress those same concerns with the White House Council on Environmental Quality and an 11-agency committee chaired by the Coast Guard.

The U.S. could also issue a general license to all qualified U.S. companies that expressed an interest in preventing and responding to a spill off Cuba’s coast. But this idea, while potentially helpful, is also extremely controversial.

Lawmakers such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have suggested that such a blanket license approval and any measures to assist Cuba’s drilling efforts would only be encouraging to Cuba. Instead, Ros-Lehtinen and others want to circumvent Cuba’s efforts altogether.

“Instead of standing in the way of American energy projects, the Obama administration must take action to prevent Cuba’s dangerous oil scheme from moving forward,” Ros-Lehtinen said at a field hearing last month.

Ros-Lehtinen has introduced legislation that would sanction anyone helping the Cuban government advance its offshore development, while Rep. David Rivera, R-Fla., has introduced a bill that would increase the liability cap and penalties faced by foreign countries in the event of a spill.

William Reilly, who cochaired the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling and headed up the Environmental Protection Agency under President George H.W. Bush, said that such efforts to hamper Cuban drilling are too late.

Drilling is already under way, and there are plans to drill five other deepwater wells with companies the United States is not nearly as familiar with as the Spanish company, he noted.

“It's common sense to expect that in the event of some kind of accident, whatever rules have been applying would be relaxed,” Reilly said. But he added that the federal government should make that clear preemptively—before a spill happens—so the private sector can react swiftly if such a spill occurs.

“This is really straightforward national interest for the United States,” Reilly told National Journal.

Amy Harder contributed contributed to this article.

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