What's at stake
Spanish oil giant Repsol could begin drilling in late December or early January at a spot along the northern shore of Cuba about 90 miles from Key West.
From there, the Gulf Stream could pick up any oil spill and carry it perilously close or even into mangrove islands and onto beaches in the Florida Keys, South Florida and up the U.S. east coast.
NAPLES — With an oil drilling rig on its way to Cuban waters from Singapore, U.S. officials are trying to piece together a strategy for what to do should a spill from the exploratory well threaten the Florida coastline.
The job is complicated by diplomatic tensions between the United States and Cuba and the domestic politics of the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
"They're proceeding cautiously, and in my opinion, a bit too cautiously," said Daniel Whittle, senior attorney and Cuba Program director at the Environmental Defense Fund.
The clock is ticking: Spanish oil giant Repsol could begin drilling in late December or early January at a spot along the northern shore of Cuba about 90 miles from Key West. From there, the Gulf Stream could pick up any oil spill and carry it perilously close or even into mangrove islands and onto beaches in the Florida Keys, South Florida and up the U.S. east coast.
The Interior Department and U.S. Coast Guard have made the rounds of House and Senate committees in the past few weeks to reassure lawmakers that they are on the job _ even without Cuba at the table.
In talks with U.S. officials since February, Repsol has pledged that it will adhere to U.S. drilling regulations while working in Cuba and has agreed to allow the United States to inspect the rig before it enters Cuban waters, the company and U.S. officials say.
U.S. regulators, though, have no enforcement power and the inspections will not be as complete as they otherwise would be if they are conducted at the drilling site, Michael Bromwich, director of the Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, recently told a House subcommittee.
About a dozen inspection points normally performed on U.S. rigs would be skipped, including testing the blowout preventer and how well the rig is secured in place, Bromwich said.
"It's a lot better than nothing at all, but it's no equivalent," Bromwich said.
He said Repsol has an incentive to cooperate with U.S. authorities to protect extensive oil interests it has in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
Company spokesman Kristian Rix said Repsol is just being a "responsible operator."
"We're happy to cooperate with U.S. authorities and pleased they've taken a keen interest," Rix said.
U.S. Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, is among a contingent of South Florida lawmakers who say the Obama administration's work with Repsol is inconsistent with U.S. policy toward Cuba.
The lawmakers, including Rivera, whose district includes eastern Collier County, sent a letter to Obama this week asking that the Commerce Department conduct its own inspection of the rig to be sure it complies with U.S. trade laws.
The letter also requests "clarity" about how the United States is applying embargo rules that prohibit the rig from having more than 10 percent U.S. parts.
The rig getting all the attention, the Scarabeo 9, is new — built in China for an estimated $750 million for Italian company Saipem, said Lee Hunt, president of the International Association of Drilling Contractors.
"It's a modern, even ultra-modern, rig really," Hunt said, noting that a half-dozen similar rigs already are working in the field and have a good safety record.
Still, the Deepwater Horizon spill in the northern Gulf of Mexico was a wakeup call that deepwater drilling is inherently risky, said Whittle, with the Environmental Defense Fund.
With friendlier countries, such as Mexico and Canada, the United States has detailed agreements about how they will coordinate responses to oil spills that threaten international borders.
Whittle said the United States needs a similar protocol with Cuba, mirroring agreements by which the National Hurricane Center works with Cuban forecasters and sends hurricane hunter aircraft into Cuban airspace.
While talks with Repsol are good, it is no substitute for direct talks with Cuba, he said. Until then, he said, the United States remains unprepared to deal with a spill in Cuban waters.
U.S. authorities have overseen tabletop oil spill response exercises at Repsol's offices in Trinidad and, in the United States, are working with state and local agencies on contingency plans, Bromwich said.
"They have plans and you know, you just hope that they've put in all the safeguards they need and it doesn't happen," Gov. Rick Scott told the Naples Daily News editorial board.
In an interview with the Naples Daily News editorial board in October, Florida Gov. Rick Scott said drilling off Cuba is Florida's "biggest risk" for a spill. He said he has met with the Coast Guard to discuss response plans.
"They have plans and you know, you just hope that they've put in all the safeguards they need and it doesn't happen," Scott said.
U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Brian Salerno told the House subcommittee this week that the Seventh District in Miami will conduct another spill response exercise later this month.
The Treasury and Commerce departments are issuing licenses to U.S. companies to allow them to contract with Repsol to provide equipment to respond to any spill despite the Cuban trade embargo.
Critics say the licensing process is too cumbersome and that the federal government should instead issue so-called "general licenses" that can be issued more quickly and with less red tape.
Bromwich told the House subcommittee that he has a "high level of confidence" that the necessary licenses will be in place when drilling starts off Cuba.
"I think we're at a pretty good place right now to get everything that's needed," he said.
Data from the Treasury and Commerce departments about the numbers of licenses issued and to which companies wasn't immediately available.A Fort Lauderdale-based oil spill response group, Clean Caribbean and Americas, has made no secret of its license to provide equipment to contain a spill.
Another company, Houston-based Wild Well Control, also has been issued a license to send equipment that would cap a leaking well, but the capping stack is in Scotland and could take days to get to Cuba, said Hunt, of the drilling contractors association.
Hunt said another oil spill response contractor based in Houston, Helix Energy Solutions, has applied for a license to provide similar equipment.
Oil industry expert Jorge Piñon said it is naïve to think that a handful of licenses will be adequate to respond to a Cuban oil spill. He said general licenses are "urgently needed."
Piñon, a former oil company executive and visiting research fellow at the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, said his concerns about drilling in Cuban waters reach beyond Repsol.
When Scarabeo 9 is finished at the Repsol tract, it will be moved to its next job at the site of another new well in Cuban waters planned by Petronas, the state-run oil company of Malaysia.
"We don't even have a phone number for somebody to call at Petronas," Piñon said. "That to me is totally unacceptable."