Experts: U.S. and Cuba on verge of historic oil spill accord

Vice President Joe Biden will speak at the University of Tampa today.
Vice President Joe Biden will speak at the University of Tampa today.
Published May 13, 2016

For more than 50 years, the broken political relationship between the United States and Cuba kept them from working together to protect the Gulf of Mexico from an oil spill.

That could be the next thing to change in this new age of normalized relations: Experts say the United States and Cuba are negotiating an agreement that would allow them to cooperate if an oil spill were to threaten either nation.

Such an agreement would usher in the unthinkable: joint military exercises between the Coast Guard and Navy with their Cuban counterparts to practice responding to a massive spill.

An accord would also be critical to protecting the Florida coastline because Cuba could allow offshore drilling in 18 months. An oil spill in Cuban waters could reach the Florida Keys in less than a week.

"Ecosystems and marine life don't know where a nation's boundaries are," said Dan Whittle, director of the Environmental Defense Fund's marine and coastal conservation projects in Cuba. "What happens in Cuban waters affects us."

The agreement would be another big step forward in the U.S.-Cuban relationship since President Barack Obama normalized diplomatic relations in 2014.

The State Department declined to comment.

Whittle said a U.S.-approved draft has been sent to Havana for endorsement. He said his Cuban colleagues recently told him "something big is in the works."

Jorge Pinon, director of the Latin America and Caribbean Energy Program at the University of Texas, also learned that officials in Havana are reviewing a draft. He expects U.S. officials will soon announce an oil spill agreement because of recent White House events.

Last week, Vice President Joe Biden chaired the U.S.-Caribbean-Central American Energy Summit that gathered those regions' heads of government and energy ministers. Although Cuba was not represented, one of the summit's purposes was to promote environmental safety.

Biden will also be in Tampa today to deliver a speech at the University of Tampa on his vision for "U.S. policy in the Western Hemisphere."

Still, that doesn't mean Cuban officials are close to approving an agreement. Pinon and Whittle said Cuba is known to take its time on political decisions. Neither would be surprised if the announcement is delayed for months.

But both are confident Cuba will eventually sign the agreement.

"A bilateral agreement would allow proper advanced planning, preparation and training to ensure that the response is credible and capable of containing the spill," said Lee Hunt, oil drilling consultant and former president of the International Association of Drilling Contractors in Houston, which trains engineers on safety.

"The travesty, of course, is that it took years for this to happen," said Albert Fox, founder of Tampa's Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, who has helped Hunt visit Cuba to meet with leaders there. "This agreement is for the betterment of both countries."

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Hunt believes that a U.S.-Cuban oil spill response protocol would be similar to the agreement that the United States and Mexico forged in 1980 known as MEXUS.

That agreements spells out how U.S. and Mexican personnel would work together to deal with an oil spill, how they would handle air and sea traffic control, conduct joint military exercises and deploy military personnel.

The timing is right for the United States to reach a deal on handling oil spills because Cuba could finally be on the verge of tapping the 20 billion barrels of oil that are believed to lie beneath that nation's deep waters.

Cuba's past deep water explorations, most recently one led by Spain's Repsol in 2012, have come up dry. But Cuba is now in a partnership with Angola's state-run petroleum production company, Sonangol. Hunt said Cuba seems determined to drill in the next 18 months and Sonangol is rumored to have hired a consultant for the venture.

Cuba, said Hunt, has been trained on safe oil drilling procedures. But as the BP oil spill proved, no nation is immune from an offshore drilling incident. The 2010 oil rig explosion killed 11 and released millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

To prevent another catastrophe, Hunt said Cuba needs access to the best oil spill cleanup resources in the world. That means working with the U.S.

"If our government fails to heed the lesson of BP and prepare for the worst," said Hunt, "an oil spill disaster in the Florida Straits would become the equivalent of this . . . administration's Katrina."

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