Oil drilling off Cuba prompts talks in region

WASHINGTON — As Cuba embarks on a new round of exploratory offshore drilling, U.S. officials are slightly more enlightened about the island nation's plans in the event of a catastrophic oil spill on the scale of last year's Deepwater Horizon explosion.

Several Caribbean countries, including Cuba, and the United States met last week in the Bahamas to talk about response plans. U.S. officials got an opportunity to see the Cuban disaster response plans — they've already participated in a mock response drill in Trinidad with the Spanish oil company that's doing the first round of drilling.

That company, Repsol, also agreed to allow U.S. inspectors from the Interior Department to take a look at the rig that will be doing the drilling.

Sarah Stephens, the executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, said she was encouraged that Cuban and American officials met, along with other nations that have an interest in regional oil production.

U.S. officials say their priority is mitigating any potential threat to the United States and its territorial waters from oil drilling in Cuban waters. But they also say they've done nothing to facilitate oil drilling in Cuban waters, and that their main goal is to be prepared for the possibility of an oil spill and how they would respond to it.

"The United States will continue to engage multilaterally to advance regional collaboration and to ensure responsible stewardship of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea," the State Department said in a statement issued before the meeting in the Bahamas.

Although U.S. officials say they're not actively working to keep Cubans from drilling in their own waters, the embargo that's been in place since the 1960s may have slowed things down.

Repsol had to find an oil rig made from fewer than 10 percent U.S. components — not an easy task. Although few rigs are U.S. made, many components — including software and blowout preventers — are made in the United States.

The rig, owned by a subsidiary of the Italian oil company Eni, will go next to state-owned oil companies: Petronas, a Malaysian company, and ONGC, an Indian state-owned company that will be partnering with the Russian state-owned company Gazprom.

"That rig was custom built to be sure that it met the embargo limitations," said Jorge Piñon, a former Amoco executive and a visiting research fellow with Florida International University's Latin American and Caribbean Center's Cuban Research Institute. "That's why it's taking so long, over the last three years, for international oil companies to be able to drill in Cuba."

Piñon and other experts in Cuba's drilling and regulatory abilities remain concerned that the U.S. government hasn't spoken with the other oil giants that will be leasing the rig after Repsol — all state-owned companies.

"Politics have exceeded common sense in protecting the environment and economy of Florida," Piñon said.

The U.S. doesn't have the same leverage with the other state-owned oil companies next in line, however, Interior Department officials told Congress in October. But because it's a public company and because of its other extensive U.S. interests, Repsol is likely to exercise caution in a prospect less than 100 miles from the Florida coastline.

Oil drilling off Cuba prompts talks in region 12/12/11 [Last modified: Monday, December 12, 2011 6:51pm]

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