KEY WEST, Fla. – In about five months, Spanish oil giant Repsol is scheduled to begin a risky offshore exploration in Cuba’s North Basin, about 60 to 70 miles from Key West and even closer to ecologically fragile waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
From a $750 million semi-submersible rig arriving from Singapore, Repsol will drill through 5,600 feet of seawater with strong currents and another 14,000 or so feet of layered rock at high pressure.
It’s just the start of Cuba’s big push to find and produce what geologists believe is an undiscovered energy treasure trove of oil and natural gas reservoirs. The prospects are so promising that seven international consortiums involving 10 countries have partnered with the communist nation.
In the Florida Keys and up the East Coast, the prospect of potential oil spills so close to precious coral reefs, fisheries and coastal communities is frightening. Federal, state and local agencies have been scrambling to update contingency response plans using the many lessons learned from last year’s economically and environmentally devastating BP Deepwater Horizon blowout, which took 85 days to contain.
“Deepwater Horizon was 450 miles away and we saw the impact for the Keys,” said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Pat DeQuattro, commander of Sector Key West. “This is much, much closer and Cuba is a sovereign nation.”
Cuba also is a nation that the United States has embargoed for nearly 50 years, with bitter relations dating to the Kennedy administration.
As it stands now, a lot of U.S. containment equipment, technology, chemical dispersants and personnel expertise would not be allowed to respond to a spill where it likely would be needed most – “at the faucet,” said oil industry expert Jorge R. Pinon, a visiting research fellow at the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
Politics also would prevent relief wells in Cuban waters from being built by U.S. companies or with U.S. resources.
“The clock is ticking for the U.S. to rethink its policy,” said Dan Whittle, Cuban program director for the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund. “Hoping (Cuban oil exploration) goes away is not good policy.”
Even the final report issued in January from the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling recommended U.S. cooperation with Cuba’s oil industry to protect “fisheries, coastal tourism and other valuable U.S. natural resources” that could be put at great risk.
The report said it is in our country’s national interest to negotiate with Cuba on common, rigorous safety standards and regulatory oversight.
But direct discussions have not happened, due primarily to a powerful voting bloc of pro-embargo Cuban Americans. Among them is U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican who represents the Florida Keys and Miami-Dade County and is chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“You can’t trust that evil, awful Castro regime,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a recent phone interview. “It would be dangerously naive.”
Ros-Lehtinen has spearheaded efforts to stop oil drilling in Cuban waters.
In May, she introduced the Caribbean Coral Reef Protection Act, the third version of legislation she also tried to get passed in previous Congresses. It would impose penalties against companies that spend $1 million or more developing Cuba’s offshore petroleum resources and deny U.S. visas to their foreign principals.
“I know it will be hard to pass; I have no delusions of success,” she said. “But it’s important to take a stand.”
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has been fighting to stop Cuban oil exploration for years.
But all the American efforts to stop drilling in Cuban waters have been unsuccessful. The best the United States has been able to do is push for safety. In May, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar met with Repsol officials in Madrid. He reportedly used leases in U.S. waters as leverage to obtain assurances the company would follow American safety standards in Cuba. Repsol also has been in contact with the U.S. Coast Guard regarding how it would deal with a potential spill.