By William E. Gibson, Washington Bureau
4:40 a.m. EST, January 21, 2014
WASHINGTON – Cuban officials are preparing to resume offshore oil drilling in deep waters as close as 50 miles from the Florida coast, posing a threat to the state’s beaches and marine life, former Gov. Bob Graham said Monday after a trip to Havana.
The Cubans, he said, are negotiating with energy companies from Angola and Brazil to drill exploratory wells along the maritime border where U.S. and Cuban waters meet, starting next year. Graham warned that if drilling in that area produces a major oil spill, the powerful ocean current known as the Gulf Stream would drag any slick north to the Florida Keys and along the coast to South Florida’s coral reefs and beachfront.
“If there were a spill of any significant size, without question it would impact Florida,” Graham said.
The former Florida governor and U.S. senator, who co-chaired a presidential commission on the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, said Cuba is aiming for high safety standards but may lack the capacity to contain a major spill.
“This is an inherently risky operation when you are drilling two or more miles under the ocean,” he said.
Graham went to Cuba along with staff members of the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank, and met with Cuban energy and environmental leaders.
The Cubans, desperate for an economic lifeline, are convinced that crude oil worth billions of dollars is deposited near their shores, despite failed efforts to find it.
After spending nearly $700 million over a decade of exploration, energy companies from around the world all but abandoned the search last year. The initial results brought relief to environmentalists alarmed about the prospect of a spill and the complications of dealing with it amid the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
A floating rig built in China and operated by Repsol, a Spanish firm, found oil in waters north of Havana, but not enough to be worth the expense of extracting it. A Russian company, Zarubezhneft, also searched without success in shallow waters closer to shore.
But Cuba is determined to keep trying, Graham said, because of seismic testing that indicates sizable deposits north of the island.
“In fact, they have either made a commitment or are negotiating commitments for drilling in 10 additional blocks of the area north of the Cuban coast, and they hope to have some drilling started as early as 2015,” Graham said. “They are satisfied that these [seismic tests] show enough commercially promising oil deposits that they are proceeding forward aggressively.”
Their latest target, he said, is near the maritime border, midway between Cuba and Key West. That would push the exploration into deeper water closer to Florida – and increase the risk of a spill.
“What is contemplated is an area north of Cuba that could be 10,000 to 12,000 feet deep,” Graham said. “It could be considerably deeper. And the deeper it gets, the riskier it is.”
The Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico was in water more than 5,000 feet deep. It spewed 210 million gallons of crude oil, causing billions of dollars of damage to five coastal states, slathering beaches, ruining the area’s tourist season, devastating its fishing industry and causing lasting harm to marine life.
Gulf currents carried part of the oil slick toward the Florida Keys, but an eddy shut it off, sparing South Florida from damage.
Oceanographers who study the currents share Graham’s concern.
“If you do have an oil spill anywhere north of Havana, in all likelihood you would end up with oil reaching the U.S. coast,” Frank Muller-Karger, a marine scientist at the University of South Florida said Monday. “If the oil reaches the coast, it’s a disaster. We have the largest coral reef in the continental U.S. there. It’s a tremendous wildlife resource, a fishing resource, a tourism resource, huge cities that depend on those beaches. So it would have a very big impact.”
To guard against disaster, the U.S. Coast Guard plans to skim, burn or spray chemical dispersants on any slick that forms in the Caribbean to stop it from reaching the Florida coast. The Coast Guard’s contingency plan also calls for placing floating booms along the entrance to marine sanctuaries and inlets to protect mangroves and hatching waters for fish and other wildlife.
But the task is complicated by the embargo and frosty relations between the countries, which could block U.S. companies from going to the site of a potential spill without Cuban permission.
Coast Guard and other U.S. officials have been meeting with counterparts from Cuba, Mexico, the Bahamas and Jamaica to confront these barriers and form a regional response plan.
“In terms of safety issues, their standards are high – in some instances they even exceed U.S. standards,” Graham said. “The question is their capability to meet those standards.”
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