By James Grippando | March 29, 2014 | Updated: March 29, 2014 2:41pm
Photo By Javier Galeano/STF
An exploratory drilling rig sits in the waters off Cuba’s northern coast as fishermen work in Havana Bay, Cuba. An exploratory drilling rig sits in the waters off Cuba’s northern coast as fishermen work in Havana Bay, Cuba.
Recent events in Washington have sparked debate about the future environmental safety of thousands of miles of coastline, from Texas to the Florida Keys. Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lifted its ban against BP from offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Then, in the wake of Russia’s seizure of a natural gas plant in Crimea, the West deliberated sanctions against Russia that could accelerate Russia’s ongoing exploration for natural gas in Cuban waters south of Key West.
Critics argue that BP’s agreement with the EPA comes too soon after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 workers and caused catastrophic environmental damage. Concerns over the agreement may or may not be valid, but a compelling case can be made that the Russian exploration presents the more vexing problem. While BP will resume drilling under strict supervision and detailed conditions, Russian oil companies are drilling offshore in Cuban waters with no U.S. oversight.
Russia and the giant oil companies it controls are key players in offshore exploratory drilling in Cuban waters. An estimated 5.5 billion barrels of oil and another 9.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lies beneath a mile or more of ocean in the Cuban basin, midway between Havana and Florida. Last year, the Spanish oil company Repsol drilled just 56 miles from Key West. The project was unsuccessful, but exploration continues.
In January, Bob Graham, a former Florida senator and governor who co-chaired a presidential commission on the Deepwater Horizon spill, reported that Cuba and its state-owned oil company are “aggressively” pursuing plans to drill offshore. Cuba’s primary target is near the maritime border in waters that could be 10,000 to 12,000 feet deep. Experts agree that with the Gulf Stream moving at three to four knots, a Cuban oil spill would affect Florida in just six to 10 days.
What could the U.S. do to avert disaster in the event of a major spill in Cuban waters, particularly one that involves a Russian-controlled drilling operation? BP paid roughly $40 billion in fines and damages for the devastation it caused, and pleaded guilty to criminal charges. Who would hold the Russians and other companies drilling in Cuban waters accountable?
The lack of any diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, let alone a maritime treaty, means that the U.S. cannot be assured of the safety standards in Cuban drilling operations.
In June 2013, the Moscow Times reported that the Russians’ exploratory drilling was cut short due to safety concerns over the “blowout preventer,” the same crucial piece of equipment that was at the heart of the BP spill. The Russian’s self-restraint, however, had nothing to do with U.S. oversight, and there is no guarantee that the Russians will be as cautious going forward, particularly as relations with the U.S. worsen over the crisis in the Ukraine.
The longstanding U.S. trade embargo against Cuba presents huge obstacles. Under the embargo, the massive semisubmersible rigs used in offshore drilling in Cuban waters can contain no more than 10 percent U.S. parts. The embargo makes it difficult if not impossible to obtain replacement parts from U.S. companies, which only heightens the risk of a mishap. The U.S. response to a spill would be equally hamstrung. According to the Council of Foreign Relations, which sent Graham on his recent trip to Cuba, the U.S. Coast Guard would be barred from deploying highly experienced manpower, specially designed booms, skimming equipment and vessels, and dispersants. U.S. offshore gas and oil companies would also be barred from using well-capping stacks, remotely operated submersibles and other vital technologies.
A catastrophe in Cuban waters would leave little time to work through these issues. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the most, and possibly only, effective response to a spill in the fast-moving Cuban waters would be surface and subsurface dispersants. If dispersants are not applied close to the source within four days after a spill, uncontained oil cannot be dispersed, burned or skimmed, which would render standard response technologies like containment booms ineffective.
The former president of Amoco Oil Latin America, Jose Piñon, now a research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin and a leading authority on Cuban oil exploration, estimates that Cuba has approximately 5 percent of the resources it needs to respond to a spill on the order of Deepwater Horizon. Indeed, the Washington Post reported that the current disaster response plan is to retrofit and deploy aging crop dusters from Cuban farms to dump dispersants. Current U.S. laws and the current status of U.S./Cuba relations raise serious questions as to whether the U.S. could supply the needed resources in time to avert disaster.
It remains to be seen if BP will be a more responsible corporate citizen as it resumes drilling in the Gulf. That BP will improve its safety measures, however, seems much more likely than Russia, and the Russian oil companies that are behind the Cuban exploration, stepping up to save Florida from disaster.
Grippando, counsel to the law firm of Boies Schiller & Flexner, is a New York Times best-selling author. His 21st novel, “Black Horizon,” was published in March by HarperCollins.
Special thanks to Richard Charter