After an unsuccessful round of drilling in 2012 and 2013, Cuba’s oil and gas industry is poised for further deepwater exploration in the Gulf as soon as 2015. As Cuba explores and eventually drills for oil, Florida and neighboring states have a paramount interest in ensuring that Cuba’s drilling operators employ the highest safety standards and the best available technology. From our experience with the BP tragedy, failure to meet these standards would seriously threaten Florida’s economy and environment.
A half-century of trade and travel restrictions separates the United States and Cuba. And yet the island’s northern boundary floats just 50 miles from southern Florida. For communities in southern Florida whose commerce, especially tourism, depends on a healthy marine system, an oil spill would be disastrous. Coral reefs and mangroves, such as those found in the Everglades, Biscayne National Park and the Florida Keys, serve as protective barriers from hurricanes. They also provide critical nurseries for species that support commercial and recreational fisheries on the east coast.
Earlier this year in Havana, we met with top energy and environmental officials in Cuba to assess the country’s preparation to mitigate an oil spill in Cuba’s Gulf waters. After successive meetings, we left with a new realization of Cuba’s imminent intention to explore for oil. Seismic studies indicate the potential for commercial-scale oil and gas deposits, and the instability of Venezuela, Cuba’s main oil provider, is further incentive.
We are confident that Cuba is adopting standards in line with the recommendations developed by President Obama’s National Commission on the BP Oil Spill and the Future of Offshore Drilling, which we co-chaired. The test will be the capacity to achieve these standards.
Given Cuba’s limited human and material resources and lack of substantial experience regulating deepwater oil and gas exploration, the United States should revise embargo-related restrictions to foster the highest standards of safe drilling. It is beyond our intentions to advocate for a total lifting of the embargo; rather, we urge for modifications to specific provisions to achieve maximum protection from a BP-type accident. One such restriction in need of modification is the U.S. sanction that prevents Cuba and its contractors from acquiring advanced technology with more than 10 percent U.S. content. Only one drilling rig in the world qualifies under this criterion.
U.S. travel and export restrictions further limit spill response in the Gulf of Mexico as they prohibit U.S. oil spill mitigation companies from traveling readily to Cuba. This potential danger became a reality during the BP explosion where the delay in capping the surging oil substantially increased the damage. In the aftermath of BP, the U.S. oil and gas industry established two response teams in the Gulf. But under current U.S. embargo restrictions, these response capabilities would not be available in the event of a similar accident in Cuban waters. We therefore urge the president to issue appropriate industry-wide “general” licenses for travel and export so that companies in the oil service and spill response industry can position proper equipment in advance.
The BP oil spill underscored that the Gulf of Mexico waters transcend national boundaries, making all countries sharing the Gulf vulnerable to consequences of a major spill. Within a year of the BP spill, commission representatives and affected U.S. agencies met with Mexican counterparts to coordinate Gulf drilling safety and response. Culminating at the Clean Gulf 2013 conference in Tampa, this dialogue now includes the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Cuba. The result was the establishment of the Multi-Lateral Technical Operating Procedure (MTOP) to institute safety protocols in the event of a cross-border spill. While this was a substantial start, more needs to be done. Appropriate agencies in the U.S. government should brief oil companies on safety procedures in the agreement. To strengthen their oversight of drilling in the Gulf, these agencies would likewise benefit from creating channels for the exchange of expertise and training between Cuban and U.S. personnel.
Given Cuba’s serious pursuit of offshore drilling and the potential risk of an oil spill, the slow pace of U.S. preparedness greatly concerns us. To avoid environmental and economic damages reminiscent of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the United States must relax equipment restrictions. It must take comprehensive actions to facilitate cross-border exchange of best practices, mitigation training and response strategies. Until such steps are in place, we cannot be satisfied that every possible measure has been taken to preserve the economic and ecological wellbeing of the Gulf of Mexico.
William K. Reilly, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Bob Graham, former governor and senator from Florida, co-chaired the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.