US, Cuba prepare oil spill emergency plan
Plan stresses cooperation between the two countries
If a future oil spill in the Caribbean Sea threatens American shores, a new federal plan obtained by The Associated Press would hinge on cooperation from neighboring foreign governments. Now that Cuba is the neighbor drilling for oil, cooperation is hard to guarantee.
The International Offshore Response Plan draws on lessons from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and was created to stop offshore oil spills as close to their source as possible, even in foreign waters. The plan dated Jan. 30 has not been released publicly. The AP obtained a copy through a Freedom of Information Act request.
After crude oil stained Gulf Coast beaches, state and federal officials are eager to head off even the perception of oil spreading toward the coral reefs, beaches and fishing that generate tens of billions of tourist dollars for Florida alone.
The plan comes as Spanish oil company Repsol YPF conducts exploratory drilling in Cuban waters and the Bahamas considers similar development for next year. Complicating any oil spill response in the Florida Straits, though, is the half-century of tension between the U.S. and its communist neighbor 90 miles south of Florida.
Under the plan dated Jan. 30, the Coast Guard's Miami-based 7th District would take the lead in responding to a spill affecting U.S. waters, which includes Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The district's operations cover 15,000 miles of coastline and share borders with 34 foreign countries and territories.
Repsol's operations in Cuban waters are not subject to U.S. authority, but the company allowed U.S. officials to inspect its rig and review its own oil spill response plan.
"We've demonstrated already and we continue to demonstrate that we're a safe, responsible operator doing all in its power to carry out a transparent and safe operation," Respol spokesman Kristian Rix said Thursday.
Rix declined to elaborate on the company's response plans, but he did say two minor recommendations made by U.S. officials inspecting the rig were immediately put in place.
If an oil spill began in Cuban waters, Cuba would be responsible for any spill cleanup and efforts to prevent damage to the U.S., but the Coast Guard would respond as close as possible.
Though a 50-year-old embargo bars most American companies from conducting business with Cuba and limits communication between the two governments, the Coast Guard and private response teams have licenses from the U.S. government to work with Cuba and its partners if a disaster arises.
The U.S. and Cuba have joined Mexico, the Bahamas and Jamaica since November in multilateral discussions about how the countries would notify each other about offshore drilling problems, said Capt. John Slaughter, chief of planning, readiness, and response for the 7th District.
He said channels do exist for U.S. and Cuban officials to communicate about spills, including the Caribbean Island Oil Pollution Response and Cooperation Plan. That's a nonbinding agreement, though, so the Coast Guard has begun training crews already monitoring the Cuban coastline for drug and migrant smuggling to keep an eye out for problems on the Repsol rig.
William Reilly, co-chairman of the national commission on the Deepwater Horizon spill and head of the EPA during President George H.W. Bush, said the Coast Guard generated goodwill in Cuba by notifying its government of potential risks to the island during the 2010 spill.
It would be hard for the Cuban government to keep any spill secret if Repsol and other private companies were responding, Slaughter said.
"Even if we assume the darkest of dark and that the Cuban government wouldn't notify us, we'd hear through industry chatter and talk. If the companies were notified, I'm quite confident we would get a phone call before they fly out their assets," he said.
Funding for a U.S. response to a foreign spill would come from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund managed by the Coast Guard. As of Feb. 29, that fund contained $2.4 billion.
The plan covers many lessons learned from the 2010 spill, like maintaining a roster of "vessels of opportunity" for hire and making sure the ships that are skimming and burning oil offshore can store or treat oily water for extended periods of time. Other tactics, like laying boom, have been adapted for the strong Gulf Stream current flowing through the Florida Straits.
What the plan doesn't cover is the research on how an oil spill might behave in the straits, said Florida International University professor John Proni, who's leading a group of university and federal researchers studying U.S. readiness for oil spills.
Among the unknowns are the effect of dispersants on corals and mangroves, how oil travels in the major currents, the toxicity of Cuban and how to determine whether oil washing ashore in the U.S. came from Cuba.
"My view is that the Coast Guard has developed a good plan but it's based on existing information," so it's incomplete, he said.
Former Amoco Oil Latin America president Jorge Pinon, now an oil expert at the University of Texas, said the Coast Guard had a solid plan.
He cautioned against recent congressional legislation introduced by one of South Florida's three Cuban-American representatives to curtail drilling off Cuba by sanctioning those who help them do it. The bill is sponsored by Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami.
Instead, Pinon said the U.S. needs to formalize agreements with Cuba about who would be in command if an oil well blew, because the U.S. has more resources available.
"The issue is not to stop the spill from reaching Florida waters, the issue is capping the well and shutting it down," Pinon said. "We can play defense all we want, but we don't want to play defense, we want to play offense, we want to cap the well."
Reilly said the U.S. still needs to issue permits for equipment in the U.S. that would be needed if a Cuban well blew, Reilly said. For example, if a blowout occurred, the company would have to get a capping stack from Scotland, which could take up to a week.
"We know from Macondo that a great deal can happen in a week," Reilly said. "I've been very concerned about getting the sanctions interpreted in a way that permits us to exercise some common sense."
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