A Chinese-built drilling rig known as Scarabeo 9 is seen off the coast of Havana in January. Spanish oil company Repsol YPF has begun drilling the first well in Cuba's long-awaited exploration of offshore oilfields. (DESMOND BOYLAN/REUTERS)

As energy companies from Spain, Russia and Malaysia line up to drill for oil in Cuban waters 60 miles from the Florida Keys, U.S. agencies are struggling to cobble together emergency plans to protect fragile reefs, sandy beaches and a multibillion-dollar tourism industry in the event of a spill.

Drawing up contingency plans to confront a possible spill is much more difficult because of the economic embargo against Cuba. U.S. law bars most American companies — including oil services and spill containment contractors — from conducting business with the communist island. The embargo, now entering its 50th year, also limits direct government-to-government talks.

In the vacuum, a Coast Guard admiral in Miami and a dozen technocrats from Cuba and the United States have begun to quietly engage in an awkward partnership of necessity to protect their coastlines, separated by politics but united by the mighty Gulf Stream.

“This is a case of Cold War ideology colliding with 21st-century environmental policy, and it is the environment that is at risk,” said Lee Hunt, president of the International Association of Drilling Contractors.

The need to plan a detailed response for a possible spill in Cuban waters — including who pays for what — is driven by memories of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, where close to 5 million barrels of crude flowed unabated for three months off the Louisiana coast.

The Deepwater Horizon accident, the largest maritime spill ever, involved a massive response by the U.S. government to contain what experts concluded was a preventable disaster caused by misjudgments by three major oil drilling companies: BP, Halliburton and Transocean.

“Now imagine something like that happening in the waters between two countries that don’t even talk to each other,” said Jorge Pinon, a former president of Amoco Oil Latin America and now a research fellow at the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas.

The Deepwater Horizon liabilities could exceed $43 billion. Containing the oil in Louisiana employed 5,000 vessels. Cuba’s total gross domestic product is $50 billion. Pinon said that Cuba, with a tiny navy and a thin coast guard, has only 5 percent of the resources needed to contain a spill approaching the size of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

“The U.S. Coast Guard is terrified,” he said.

5 billion barrels

Last month, Repsol, a Spanish oil and gas company, using a state-of-the-art, Norwegian-designed, Chinese-built, semi-submersible rig called Scarabeo 9, began drilling the first in a series of deep-water exploratory wells in the Florida Straits, at a cost of $500,000 a day.

According to a 2004 study by the U.S. Geological Survey, there could be 5 billion barrels of undiscovered oil reserves in the north Cuba basin. While some U.S. lawmakers might not like it, Cuba has every right to drill for oil in its own waters.

Congressional Republicans representing Cuban American communities in Florida say the Obama administration should have imposed sanctions and threatened foreign companies such as Repsol from doing business in Cuba.

“This is a disaster waiting to happen, and the Obama administration has abdicated its role in protecting our environment and national security by allowing this plan to move forward,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Ros-Lehtinen and her colleagues sponsored legislation to deny visas to anyone who helps the Cubans advance their oil drilling plans. They have also sought to punish Repsol.

“We need to figure out what we can do to inflict maximum pain, maximum punishment, to bleed Repsol of whatever resources they may have if there’s a potential for a spill that would affect the U.S. coast,” Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.) told in January a congressional subcommittee that oversees the U.S. Coast Guard.

An unusual coalition of U.S. environmentalists and oil industry executives have joined forces to push the White House to treat the threat of a spill seriously, while tamping down the anti-Castro rhetoric.

“There is no point in opposing drilling in Cuba. They are drilling. And so now we should be working together to prevent disaster,” said Daniel Whittle, Cuba program director of the Environmental Defense Fund, who has been brokering meetings between Cuban and U.S. officials.

Environmentalists applauded the announcement last week of an agreement between the United States and Mexico to allow for joint inspection of rigs operating in the Gulf of Mexico and the establishment of a common set of safety protocols between the two countries.

Nothing approaching this exists with the Cubans.

Because of the embargo, the talks between Cubans, Repsol and the Coast Guard are taking place in the Bahamas and Curacao — not Havana or Miami — under the auspices of the U.N. International Maritime Organization, paid for by charitable donations from environmental groups and oil industry associations.

A single Florida company is licensed to deliver oil dispersants to Havana. But there are no U.S. aircraft with contracts or permission to fly over Cuban waters. The current plan is to retrofit and deploy aging crop dusters from Cuban farms to dump the dispersants.

Obstacles to a cleanup

Repsol operates leases in U.S. waters in the Gulf of Mexico and has a staff of 300 based in Houston. But because of the embargo, none of the Houston staff is permitted to have anything to do with the Repsol operation in Cuba. Any assistance would have to come from Madrid.

Because of the embargo, and to protect Repsol from economic sanctions, no more than 10 percent of the components on the Scarabeo 9 drilling rig may be manufactured in the United States.

One of those components is the blowout preventer, a vital piece of safety equipment manufactured by National Oilwell Varco in Houston — whose employees cannot service the equipment while it is in Cuban waters.

If a blowout occurred, Repsol would have to await delivery of a capping stack, which would have to travel from Scotland to Cuba and then out to the rig. Experts predict it would take a week at minimum.

Cleanup crews arriving from the United States would be allowed to skim oil from the water and collect surplus oil gushing from the rig, but they’d have to take it someplace. The question is where? The U.S. tankers can’t enter Cuban territorial waters, and if they do, they are prohibited from returning to the United States for six months. The recovered oil would belong to Cuba, and so it can’t travel to the United States.

Modeling of ocean currents by the USGS suggests a spill at the Repsol exploratory well site probably would not affect the Florida Keys but would be swept north by the powerful flow of the Gulf Stream and then begin to deposit oil on beaches from Miami to North Carolina.

“If anything went really wrong out there, I believe there would be a quick political response,” said William K. Reilly, co-chairman of the national commission on the Deepwater spill and head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George H.W. Bush.

But a lot can happen in a couple of days, Reilly said. “It’s time to face reality. It is, completely, in the interest of the United States that we get this right.”