Intelligent Energy

An offshore Cuban oil crisis

An offshore Cuban oil crisis

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An offshore drilling industry is emerging in Cuba. American companies want in, even if it's just to clean up a potential mess.

Cuba could be drilling for oil off its shores for the first time, as soon as next year. Spanish company Repsol plans to drill exploratory wells in waters 5,600 feet deep about 22 miles off Havana.

Not surprisingly, American companies—still awaiting the BP blowout-inspired ban on offshore drilling to lift on November 30—want in. But the 1960s trade embargo with the communist state won't allow it.

According to McClatchy Newspapers, any ship or rig comprised of more than 10 percent U.S. parts can't operate in Cuba. (Repsol will use an Italian rig equipped with an American-made blowout preventer only.)

In the face of the embargo and possibly in the hopes of easing it, companies say they at least want to be able to help. You know, just in case Cuba experiences an offshore oil incident similar to our Gulf disaster. As rookies, Cuba lacks submersible robots, drilling platforms and other forms of deepwater clean-up capacity.

Even with the experience and this technology (and some golf balls?), the U.S. took about 5 months to plug BP's well. And the area where Repsol will be drilling is about 60 miles from the Florida Keys. Should a spill occur there, marine scientists have been reported estimating that oil could reach Florida within 3 days, and possibly get swept into the Gulf Stream.

The prospect of an accident is emboldening American drilling companies, backed by some critics of the embargo, to seek permission from the United States government to participate in Cuba’s nascent industry, even if only to protect against an accident. [....]

Any opening could provide a convenient wedge for big American oil companies that have quietly lobbied Congress for years to allow them to bid for oil and natural gas deposits in waters off Cuba. Representatives of Exxon Mobil and Valero Energy attended an energy conference on Cuba in Mexico City in 2006, where they met Cuban oil officials.

Cuba, like many Caribbean islands, currently relies heavily on oil imports from Venezuela.

After April's Gulf spill, the government office that enforces foreign economic sanctions said licenses for American companies to aid Cuba's offshore efforts could be granted in emergency situations.

To put it mildly, the sentiments surrounding this issue—offshore drilling, communism, environment, employment, economic sanctions, humanitarian efforts—run deep. But whatever the political implications, Cuba needs a rapid response spill plan before any drilling commences.

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Image: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC


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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure