Cuba Set to Begin Offshore Drilling: Is Florida In Eco-Straits?

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The Cuban and Chinese national flags fly next to each other at an oil rig of the Great Wall Drilling Company, a subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), near Varadero, around 140 kilometres (86 miles) east of Havana, September 4, 2011. (Desmond Boylan-Reuters)

Like the tourism-dependent state of Florida, the tourism-dependent nation of Cuba 90 miles away can’t afford to foul its picturesque coastline with an oil spill. But unlike Florida, which has long resisted the temptation of lucrative offshore drilling, Cuba is broke. And because it’s now hearing the seductive call of as much as 20 billion barrels of crude sitting beneath the ocean just miles from Havana, the communist island is poised to begin drilling in those waters before the end of the year.

According to a map of the 43,000-sq-mile (112,00-sq-km) drilling area, some of that activity could take place as close as 45 miles from the Florida Keys and the precious coral reefs and marine sanctuaries that line them. Understandably, that’s got folks in Florida, who to say the least aren’t politically chummy with the Castro regime, environmentally fretful now as well. Which is why a delegation of U.S. and international environmentalists and drilling experts visited Cuba this month to discuss safeguards against a BP-style spill choking the Florida Straits. Fortunately, says Dan Whittle, a senior attorney for the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund, “the Cubans seem very motivated to do [the drilling] right. They understand an accident would only set back their plans and put their foreign partners under pressure to hold off investing.”

(See “Florida Hopes For Best But Braces For Oil Spill”)

Still, Whittle notes, one has to contrast Cuba’s good intentions with its threadbare technology, infrastructure and means – including the lack of a bona fide oil spill clean-up fund. (The U.S. maintains a $1 billion clean-up reserve.) Cuba, which produces about 50,000 barrels of oil per day inland, is having to rely on foreign petro-firms to do the costlier and more complicated maritime extraction. Companies like Spain’s Repsol – which is currently sending a massive ocean rig from Singapore to the Florida Straits and is slated to begin drilling after the hurricane season ends Dec. 1 – have the burden of bringing their own equipment and know-how to fill the Cuban void. And because of Washington’s 49-year-old trade embargo against Cuba, they can’t acquire spare parts next door in the U.S.

The question, then, is whether Washington will at least grant those firms access to U.S. spill prevention and clean-up hardware and services. The Obama Administration has said it will let U.S. companies do business with Cuba’s foreign partners in that context on a case-by-case basis. U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, an ardent embargo supporter who represents the Keys and chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, tells TIME that “should a disaster occur and Florida’s waters be threatened, U.S. regulations could allow U.S. oil spill mitigation companies to engage in clean-up activities.”

But Whittle and other delegation members like William Reilly, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator and co-chairman of the White House task force that investigated last year’s disastrous BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, are urging that the doors to cooperation be as open as possible, not just in response to spills but beforehand – when, for example, a foreign firm drilling off Cuba is in a hurry to replace something like a blowout preventer, the equipment whose failure led to the BP spill. “We feel it’s a no-brainer for the U.S.,” says Whittle. “It doesn’t really strengthen Cuba’s hand” in terms of actual oil drilling, “but it does strengthen everyone’s hand in terms of being prepared for emergencies.”

The estimates of Cuba’s offshore oil reserves range from 5 billion barrels to 20 billion (the latter being the Cuban government’s calculation). But it’s uncertain if Havana will be able to interest firms in exploring all 59 maritime fields it has designated off its north coast. Repsol, Statoil of Norway and ONGC of India will get the drills diving in six fields near Havana, while five other firms, including Petrobras of Brazil, have signed up for about 20 others. (China’s state-run CNPC is still negotiating concessions in five.) And even if a spill were to occur, the local currents would likely carry any slick east before it could reach the Keys – although Whittle warns “there is a lot of unpredictability in that area so the Keys have ample reason to be concerned.” Florida’s Atlantic coast could be vulnerable as well. But the more certain eco-damage, environmentalists note, would be to the beach resorts and coral reefs off Cuba’s north coast.

(See “How Cuba’s Oil Find Could Change the US Embargo”)

That fact – and the just as salient reality that Cuba’s $2 billion-a-year tourism industry is one of its its main economic engines – should give Cuba every reason to be extra vigilant about accidents. Florida leaders like Ros-Lehtinen and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson insist the best way to avoid them is get Cuba to scrap its offshore drilling plans altogether. But they know that’s not realistic. For one, thanks to a combination of mismanagement and the embargo, Cuba’s economy is already so dilapidated that President Raúl Castro is having to lay off a million state workers, and he desperately needs the oil windfall. And while leftist Venezuelan President and staunch ally Hugo Chávez sends some 120,000 barrels of oil each day to Cuba on very favorable financing terms, questions surrounding Chávez’s health (he was diagnosed this past summer with cancer) and his re-election prospects next year have made the Cubans all the more determined to be more energy self-sufficient.

Acknowledging that reality, Nelson recently introduced a bill to forge advance spill-related planning with Cuba. This is one offshore drilling venture Florida can’t control. What it can help ensure, however, is that it’s a safe one.

(See “The Tricky Clean-Up of  Deep-Water Oil Spill”)