WASHINGTON — Florida's coral reefs and delicate marine environment could become less vulnerable to pollution from potential oil spills under an agreement taking shape between the United States and Cuba.
The agreement would clear the way for American companies to provide the latest blowout preventers and other pollution controls to help stave off spills in Cuban waters and contain slicks before they ride the ocean currents to Florida.
The breakthrough would address years of anxiety about oil exploration off the north coast of Cuba and help avoid a giant spill less than 50 miles from the Florida Keys.
Environmentalists and oil-cleanup experts hope the two old adversaries complete the cooperative arrangement before Cuba resumes its hunt for oil late next year or in 2017.
"Having the best technology sitting on the seafloor 5,000 feet down in the middle of the Florida Straits is the most sensible approach to preventing harm to the environment and the economy, both in the U.S. and in Cuba," said Lee Hunt, former president of the International Association of Drilling Contractors, who is advising both sides.
Contingency plans to deal with a spill were discussed informally at a high-level U.S.-Cuban symposium in October. Both sides are moving toward a joint spill-response strategy — the latest example of attempts to find ways around the U.S. embargo, in this case to protect the watery environment.
Recent attempts to tap underwater oil deposits north of the island raised fears of a spill near the Gulf Stream, a powerful current that rushes north along South Florida's coral reefs and beaches.
Those fears were heightened by the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, which caused lasting damage to sea life. Some who helped clean up that spill attended last month's symposium in Havana.
"A spill would impact the U.S. just like it would impact Cuba. Nobody wants a spill, and everybody wants to be safe. So it was a mutual goal," said Richard Dodge, dean of oceanography at Nova Southeastern University. He advised the symposium participants on ocean currents and where they would carry an oil slick.
"Depending on where the spill occurs, it will either get sucked into the Loop Current and go into the Gulf of Mexico or spin off the Florida Keys and go as far north as the east coast of the United States," Dodge said in an interview afterward.
Participants included officials from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Cuban Civil Defense and Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment.
They discussed the possibility of labeling American products sent to Cuba, such as blowout preventers, as "pollution controls" rather than "drilling equipment" to avoid embargo restrictions.
The cooperative arrangement, still in the planning stage, would be modeled after a U.S. agreement with Mexico, which allows for joint planning exercises to prepare for potential offshore disasters.
The oil-drilling talks extend from other collaborative measures, including a sister marine sanctuary pact, approved by U.S. officials this past week, to preserve the habitat of endangered fish that migrate from Cuba to South Florida and the Gulf.
Exploratory drilling off Cuba was suspended two years ago after initial attempts failed to find enough oil to be worth extracting. Low oil prices and tempting targets in other parts of the world have chilled the search near Cuba.
But Cuban officials, eager to tap an income source and meet Cuba's energy needs, have made it clear they intend to keep trying. Hunt said the Cubans are talking with energy companies from Venezuela and Angola to resume the search.
"They have a whole environment to protect too, so they are not going into this blindly," Dodge said.
"They will be drilling in deep water, just like Deepwater Horizon. It's on everyone's mind. Accidents can happen. It means you take as much care as you can."