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.
But these regulators are severely hampered by the embargo. They cannot engage in dialogue or share expertise with their U.S. counterparts. Their engineers can be trained by international companies but cannot attend training in the United States or be certified by any U.S. organization. The Cuban government and Repsol have stated their intention to comply with U.S. rules to the best of their abilities, even though the Cuban government can have no direct contact with our regulators to learn more about those rules.
The U.S. government can, and should, make available the resources that the organizations involved with Scarabeo need to do their job well. It should also be prepared, should something go wrong, to protect the waters and beaches of Florida and the southeast United States from a potential disaster. In the event of an emergency, the U.S. government would likely do that. But the help might well come too late.
The private sector needs considerable time to ready an effective response. Engineers need to understand the rig, well characteristics and marine environment. Companies need to prepare detailed contingency plans and to allocate appropriate equipment. The only capping stack licensed for use in Cuba in the event of a blowout on the ocean floor, for instance, is in Scotland, a week’s trip away, and has no licensed vessel or crew. Certain resources may not be available if summoned at the last minute.
The Commerce and Treasury departments have issued some licenses to spill-response providers and are reviewing others. As welcome as that is, it is not sufficient. The application process and the threat of very significant fines deter many companies from even considering the prospect. The private sector needs a clear signal from the executive branch in order to move forward.
Precedents exist for communication between the U.S. and Cuban governments on common interests. The Coast Guard kept Havana apprised of developments with the Deepwater Horizon spill, at a time when some feared the gushing oil could foul Cuban waters. Cuban and U.S. officials have shared information on drug interdiction, immigration and weather, and the United States exports grain and medical supplies to Cuba. All of this has taken place without an official change in policy since the embargo was imposed in 1962. The Obama administration has the authority — now, without a change in law or regulation — to provide a general license to all qualified U.S. companies that express an interest in helping prevent and respond to a Cuban oil spill.
This is a charged issue, one that many officials might want to avoid in an election year. Some have proposed further restricting access to U.S. technology for companies working with Cuba, in the hopes that this might prevent the Cubans from accessing their oil. It is, however, time to face reality. Providing Repsol and Cuban regulators with access to resources for spill prevention and response will not further the development of Cuba’s oil and gas industry. That’s already under way. What it will do is help protect Key West. It is profoundly in the interest of the United States that we get this right.