William K. Reilly was a co-chairman of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling and, under President George H.W. Bush, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Megan Reilly Cayten is an energy expert with extensive experience in Latin America and Asia.
Cuba’s first deepwater oil rig, Scarabeo 9, began drilling last month 70 miles south of Key West, Fla. Cuban officials believe the rig may tap as much as 20 billion barrels of oil. (U.S. officials estimate a quarter to half that amount.) If Cuba’s estimates bear out, this would bring the country’s oil reserves to roughly equal those of the United States. The Spanish oil company Repsol, as well as other international companies with offshore leases from Havana, will drill at depths up to 6,000 feet, as the Cuban government pursues an era of energy independence.
It is vital to the environmental and economic interests of the United States that Cuba get this right.
The Cuban government is overseeing drilling deeper than BP’s Deepwater Horizon well and almost as close to U.S. shores, but without access to most of the resources, technology, equipment and expertise essential to prevent and, if needed, to respond to spills. We are deeply familiar with the two largest oil spills in U.S. history, from the Exxon Valdez in 1989 and following the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010. In each case, containing and remediating the spill required the mobilization of vast resources from the federal government, the private sector and local communities.
The Deepwater Horizon spill, 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface, occurred under the watch of experienced U.S. regulators, at a well drilled by one of the world’s largest, most experienced oil companies on one of the world’s most sophisticated drilling rigs. The response effort involved more than 5,000 vessels and is estimated by BP to have cost $42 billion. The International Association of Drilling Contractors estimates that Cuba has access to less than 5 percent of the resources used in combating the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
It is fortunate that a company with a good track record is the first to drill off the Cuba coast. Repsol regularly communicates with U.S. regulators, providing them access to Scarabeo 9 when it was moored in Trinidad, on its way to Cuba. But Repsol is also hampered by this country’s embargo on business with Cuba.
The blowout preventer on Scarabeo, for example, was built in the United States — it constitutes the rig’s maximum 10 percent U.S. content permitted by law. But the company that made it will not commission or maintain it, nor will it supply replacement parts because it does not have a license to operate in Cuba. One hopes that Cuban engineers are as ingenious at jury-rigging a blowout preventer as they are with their old American cars.
Cuban regulators are preparing themselves for the challenge ahead. They have sought guidance from Norwegian counterparts on the implementation of a regulatory regime known as the safety case, where risks are rigorously identified and factored into drilling protocols, and they have sent engineers to Brazil to learn about the deepwater oil industry. They also studied in detail the findings of the Deepwater Horizon commission and its companion technical report, and they have prepared action responses to each of the report’s key recommendations, as we learned on a September visit with these officials.