New research suggests that oil reserves off the coast of Cuba could be comparable to those of current oil-exporting countries such as Ecuador and Columbia. Several geologic studies, including those from the U.S. Geological Survey, estimate Cuba’s Gulf reserves could be as much as 5 billion to 9 billion barrels of crude. The Cuban government has designated 59 blocks in Gulf waters encompassing 43,200 square miles (112,000 square kilometers) for private energy companies to drill deep-water test wells.
Drilling will likely take place 100 miles (161 kilometers) from Key West, home to North America’s only living coral barrier reef and the third largest such reef system in the world. It is part of a productive marine ecosystem of interconnected habitats including patch and bank reefs, seagrass meadows, soft bottom and hard bottom communities, and coastal mangroves. It is one of the most biologically diverse assemblages of marine life in North America. Due to its ecological significance, it has been classified as a Marine Sanctuary.
Although U.S. oil companies are eager to get involved in drilling efforts south of Florida, the 48-year old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba severely limits interaction with the communist-run country. Of the 59 blocks designated as deep-water test sites open for international investment, 22 blocks have been contracted out, all to state-controlled companies including Spain’s Repsol in partnership with Norway’s Statoil, Russia’s Gazprom, India’s ONGC-Videsh, Malaysia’s Petronas, and Venezuela’s PDVSA.
Ocean scientists warn that a blowout similar to BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 could send oil spewing onto Cuban beaches and into the Florida Keys in as little as three days. If the spill reached the Gulf Stream, oil could flow up the coast to Miami and beyond, as was feared with the BP spill. As unprepared as American industry seemed at the time of the BP spill, Cuba would be far worse off. Cuba does not have the submarine robots needed to fix deepwater rig equipment nor the platforms available to begin drilling relief wells on short notice.
To address safety concerns, the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control, which regulates the embargo, will make licenses available to American companies to provide oil spill prevention and containment support. Licenses, however, would be issued only after an accident had occurred, and how to qualify for one is unclear. Furthermore, assistance could be offered only to the private companies deploying offshore drilling, and not to Cuba’s government.
Some argue that lifting the trade embargo is necessary to ensure safer drilling and an efficient response in an emergency situation. Donald Van Nieuwenhuise, director of petroleum geosciences programs at the University of Houston, argues that if an accident occurred under current U.S. embargo conditions, the initial drilling company Repsol and other companies could mobilize equipment from other regions, such the North Sea, Brazil, Japan, or China, but that this could take up to a week and would be detrimental to countries geographically close to the disaster. Such a lag time could have irreversible environmental damage, not just in Cuban waters, but in U.S. waters as well, including the fragile, unique Florida Keys ecosystems as well as shores that border the Gulf Stream.
The other option would be to halt drilling altogether by recalling a 1977 maritime boundary agreement between the U.S. and Cuba that gives Cuba jurisdiction up to 45 miles from Florida. While the treaty was never ratified by the U.S. Senate, Cuba and the United States have exchanged diplomatic notes every two years extending the provisional application of the agreement. The most recent exchange occurred on May 20, 2010, with an effective date of January 5, 2010.
The striking irony about this agreement is it allows Repsol to begin drilling in an area that the U.S. banned drilling in almost 30 years ago. Although the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1230 on May 5, 2011, which requires leases to be offered in areas in the western Gulf of Mexico that were withdrawn in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, there is still an offshore drilling ban that protects the waters within 125 miles of Florida’s shore.
A review of U.S. policies would be beneficial to verify that they are actually protecting the country’s environment (and economy) and not just indirectly inviting other countries to do the damage and reap the profits. The U.S. government opening communication and coordination with Cuba would be mutually beneficial, allowing the opportunity to create the least impact in the ecologically diverse oceans that the two countries share.