As Cuba prepares to begin allowing a Spanish company to drill for oil less than 100 miles from the Florida Keys next year, U.S. Coast Guard officials say they have learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster and will be prepared should a spill occur.
"We will attack it quickly, aggressively and as far from our shores as we can," Rear Adm. William Baumgartner told reporters during a news conference Tuesday.
Attacking an offshore spill from Cuba would include flying out to the scene and spraying dispersants such as Corexit on any oil slick, to break it up and make it degrade more quickly, Baumgartner said.
"We will use every tool at our disposal," said the admiral who commands the 7th Coast Guard District, headquartered in Miami. "Aerial dispersants are going to be an effective tool. Undispersed oil is more damaging to natural resources than dispersed oil."
The use of Corexit during last year's Deepwater Horizon cleanup — sprayed from above as well as underwater — proved to be controversial, especially after scientists from the University of South Florida and other institutions reported finding underwater plumes of dissolved oil droplets they feared would affect marine life.
Environmental activists are already questioning whether using such dispersants would be a good idea. They noted the proximity of sensitive areas such as the Dry Tortugas National Park, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the National Key Deer Refuge and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
"Just because it disappears doesn't mean it's not there," said Jonathan Ullman of the Sierra Club's South Florida office.
David Guggenheim of the Ocean Foundation, a marine scientist who has explored Cuba's undersea world, warned that dispersants should not be used lightly because there are still questions about the health effects from spraying Corexit during Deepwater Horizon.
Baumgartner said his goal in blocking the spread of a spill is not to protect Florida tourist-attracting beaches so much as it is to protect natural areas that are important to marine life, particularly coral reefs, mangroves and sea grass beds.
He said he expects the currents that flow through and near the Keys — the gulf's Loop Current, the Florida Current and the Gulfstream — will help buffer Florida from contact with most of any oil that might be spilled in Cuban waters.
But he conceded eddies are likely to break off and carry some of the oil close enough to taint the shore. That's why he wants to attack it before it ever arrives.
In addition to dispersants, Baumgartner said he would use skimmer boats, booms and controlled burns to stop the spill. However, a report on the Deepwater Horizon cleanup found that those tools did little to stop BP's spill, with only five percent of the oil burned and three percent skimmed off the surface.
Cuban officials are just as concerned over a potential spill, the admiral said. Two weeks ago, he sat down with officials from Cuba, Jamaica, the Bahamas and Mexico to run an exercise in what to do should there be a spill. Jamaica and the Bahamas are also looking into allowing exploratory drilling.
"Everyone is planning for the worst case, but hoping for the best," said Henry "Skip" Przelomski, vice president of Clean Caribbean & Americas, a Fort Lauderdale-based cooperative run by nine oil companies that is licensed to help clean up any spill in Cuban waters.
Przelomski said one option being considered is to spray dispersant underwater, just as in Deepwater Horizon. But at this point no company is licensed to take that action in Cuba, he said.
Cuba has agreed to let a Spanish company, Repsol, drill exploratory wells about 22 miles north of Havana, which means they will be 70 miles south of the Keys. Repsol's safety record is spotty. In 2008, its operation in Ecuador experienced a crude oil spill near the Yasuni National Park in a rainforest area. In 2009, another spill occurred in Ecuador's Amazon region after a rupture in a pipeline.
Repsol is bringing in an Italian-owned, Chinese-made drilling rig, the Scarabeo-9, which U.S. officials are scheduled to inspect next week. It is expected to start drilling in January.
Currently, Cuba gets its oil from Venezuela and relies on sugar, nickel mining and tourism for its economic wellbeing. But sugar production and the price of nickel have fallen. Meanwhile, its tourism industry has been sputtering — so now the Cubans are ready to consider drilling.
The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated Cuba's offshore fields hold 4.6 billion barrels of oil and 9.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and said the area has "significant potential.'' The first block Repsol is expected to explore lies under 5,600 feet of water — 600 feet deeper than where BP's Deepwater Horizon well exploded in April 2010.
Baumgartner and Capt. John Slaughter, his head of planning, said the main lesson they learned from Deepwater Horizon was to do a better job of coordinating with state and county emergency officials, who complained repeatedly about being ignored during last year's cleanup.
The admiral said he has personally briefed Gov. Rick Scott and talked with state and county officials about his contingency plans for any Cuban incident.
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com.