The Oil Off Cuba: Washington and Havana Dance at Arms Length Over Spill Prevention

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Desmond Boylan / Reuters

A Chinese-built drilling rig, known as Scarabeo 9, is seen off the coast of Havana, January 21, 2012.

On Christmas Eve, a massive, Chinese-made maritime oil rig, the Scarabeo 9, arrived at Trinidad and Tobago for inspection. The Spanish oil company Repsol YPF, which keeps regional headquarters in Trinidad, ferried it to the Caribbean to perform deep-ocean drilling off Cuba — whose communist government believes as much as 20 billion barrels of crude may lie near the island's northwest coast. But it wasn't Cuban authorities who came aboard the Scarabeo 9 to give it the once-over: officials from the U.S. Coast Guard and Interior Department did, even though the rig won't be operating in U.S. waters.

On any other occasion that might have raised the ire of the Cubans, who consider Washington their imperialista enemy. But the U.S. examination of the Scarabeo 9, which Repsol agreed to and Cuba abided, was part of an unusual choreography of cooperation between the two countries. Their otherwise bitter cold-war feud (they haven't had diplomatic relations since 1961) is best known for a 50-year-long trade embargo and history's scariest nuclear standoff. Now, Cuba's commitment to offshore oil exploration — drilling may start this weekend — raises a specter that haunts both nations: an oil spill in the Florida Straits like the BP calamity that tarred the nearby Gulf of Mexico two years ago and left $40 billion in U.S. damages.

The Straits, an equally vital body of water that's home to some of the world's most precious coral reefs, separates Havana and Key West, Florida, by a mere 90 miles. As a result, the U.S. has tacitly loosened its embargo against Cuba to give firms like Repsol easier access to the U.S. equipment they need to help avoid or contain possible spills. "Preventing drilling off Cuba better protects our interests than preparing for [a disaster] does," U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida tells TIME, noting the U.S. would prefer to stop the Cuban drilling — but can't. "But the two are not mutually exclusive, and that's why we should aim to do both."

Cuba meanwhile has tacitly agreed to ensure that its safety measures meet U.S. standards (not that U.S. standards proved all that golden during the 2010 BP disaster) and is letting unofficial U.S. delegations in to discuss the precautions being taken by Havana and the international oil companies it is contracting. No Cuban official would discuss the matter, but Dan Whittle, senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund in New York, who was part of one recent delegation, says the Cubans "seem very motivated to do the right thing."

It's also the right business thing to do. Cuba's threadbare economy — President Raúl Castro currently has to lay off more than 500,000 state workers — is acutely energy-dependent on allies like Venezuela, which ships the island 120,000 barrels of oil per day. So Havana is eager to drill for the major offshore reserves geologists discovered eight years ago (which the U.S. Geological Survey estimates at closer to 10 billion bbl.). Cuba has signed or is negotiating leases with Repsol and companies from eight other nations — Norway, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brazil, Venezuela, Angola and China — for 59 drilling blocks inside a 43,000-sq.-mile (112,000 sq km) zone. Eventually, the government hopes to extract half a million bpd or more.

A serious oil spill could scuttle those drilling operations — especially since Cuba hasn't the technology, infrastructure or means, like a clean-up fund similar to the $1 billion the U.S. keeps on reserve, to confront such an emergency. And there is another big economic anxiety: Cuba's $2 billion tourism industry. "The dilemma for Cuba is that as much as they want the oil, they care as much if not more about their ocean resources," says Billy Causey, southeast regional director for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's marine sanctuary program. Cuba's pristine beaches and reefs attract sunbathers and scuba divers the world over, and a quarter of its coastal environment is set aside as protected.

So is much of coastal Florida, where tourism generates $60 billion annually — which is why the state keeps oil rigs out of its waters. The Florida Keys lie as close as 50 miles from where Repsol is drilling; and they run roughly parallel to the 350-mile-long (560 km) Florida Reef Tract (FRT), the world's third largest barrier reef and one of its most valuable ocean eco-systems. The FRT is already under assault from global warming, ocean acidification and overfishing of symbiotic species like parrotfish that keep coral pruned of corrosive algae. If a spill were to damage the FRT, which draws $2 billion from tourism each year and supports 33,000 jobs, "it would be a catastrophic event," says David Vaughan, director of Florida's private Mote Marine Laboratory.

Which means America has its own dilemma. As much as the U.S. would like to thwart Cuban petro-profits — Cuban-American leaders like U.S. Representative and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami say the oil will throw a lifeline to the Castro dictatorship — it needs to care as much if not more about its own environment. Because fewer than a tenth of the Scarabeo 9's components were made in America, Washington can't wield the embargo cudgel and fine Repsol, which has interests in the U.S., for doing business with Cuba. (Most of the other firms don't have U.S. interests.) Nor can it in good conscience use the embargo in this case to keep U.S. companies from offering spill prevention/containment hardware and services to Repsol and other drilling contractors.

One of those U.S. firms is Helix Energy Solutions in Houston. Amid the Gulf disaster, Helix engineered a "capping stack" to plug damaged blow-out preventers like the one that failed on BP's Deepwater Horizon rig. (It later contained the spill.) Having that technology at hand — especially since the Cuba rigs will often operate in deeper waters than the Deepwater rig was mining — will be critical if a spill occurs off Cuba.

Helix has applied to the Treasury Department for a special license to lease its equipment, and speedily deliver it, to Cuba's contractors when needed. The license is still pending, but Helix spokesman Cameron Wallace says the company is confident it will come through since Cuba won't benefit economically from the arrangement. "This is a reasonable approach," says Wallace. "We can't just say we'll figure out what to do if a spill happens. We need this kind of preparation." Eco-advocates like Whittle agree: "It's a no-brainer for the U.S."

Preparation includes something the U.S.-Cuba cold-war time warp rarely allows: dialogue. Nelson has introduced legislation that would require federal agencies to consult Congress on how to work with countries like Cuba on offshore drilling safety and spill response, but the Administration has already shown some flexibility. Last month U.S. officials and scientists had contact with Cuban counterparts at a regional forum on drilling hazards. That's important because they need to be in synch, for example, about how to attack a spill without exacerbating the damage to coral reefs. Scientists like Vaughan worry that chemical dispersants used to fight the spill in the Gulf, where coral wasn't as prevalent, could be lethal to reefs in the Straits. That would breed more marine catastrophe, since coral reefs, though they make up only 1% of the world's sea bottoms, account for up to 40% of natural fisheries. "They're our underwater oases," says Vaughan, whose tests so far with dispersants and FRT species like Elkhorn coral don't augur well.

A rigid U.S. reluctance to engage communist Cuba is of course only half the problem. Another is Havana's notorious, Soviet-style secrecy — which some fear "could override the need to immediately pick up the phone," as one environmentalist confides, if and when a spill occurs. As a result, some are also petitioning Washington to fund AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles) that marine biologists use to detect red tides, and which could also be used to sniff out oil spills in the Straits.

What experts on both sides of the Straits hope is that sea currents will carry any oil slick directly out into the Atlantic Ocean. But that's wishful thinking. So probably is the notion that U.S.-Cuba cooperation on offshore drilling can be duplicated on other fronts. Among them are the embargo, including the arguably unconstitutional ban on U.S. travel to Cuba, which has utterly failed to dislodge the Castro regime but which Washington keeps in place for fear of offending Cuban-American voters in swing-state Florida; and cases like that of Alan Gross, a U.S. aid worker imprisoned in Cuba since 2009 on what many call questionable spying charges.

U.S. inspectors this month gave the Scarabeo 9 the thumbs-up. Meanwhile, U.S. pols hope they can still dissuade foreign oil companies from operating off Cuba. Last month Nelson and Cuban-American Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey introduced a bill to hold firms financially responsible for spills that affect the U.S. even if they originate outside U.S. waters. (It would also lift a $75 million liability cap.) Others in Congress say Big Oil should be exempted from the embargo to let the U.S. benefit from the Cuba oil find too. Either way, the only thing likely to stop the drilling now would be the discovery that there's not as much crude there as anticipated. That, or a major spill.