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U.S., Cuban officials to meet in Florida about cooperation on oil spill response

Government officials from the United States and Cuba will meet in Fort Lauderdale on an agreement to help one another in oil spill cleanups, like the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. [AP]
Published Feb. 25, 2018

Two months after the Trump administration announced it would open no more of Florida's coast to oil drilling, U.S. government agencies will meet with their counterparts from Cuba about protecting the state's shores from oil spills there.

The State Department confirmed to the Tampa Bay Times that the talks will take place in March in Broward County.

The discussions come under an accord signed by the Obama administration for the two nations to work together on containing and cleaning any oil spills within one country's borders that threatens the other.

An oil spill in Cuban waters could reach the Florida Keys in under a week.

And the worry is mutual.

"Cubans have as great a concern about spill pollution arriving from a U.S. accident in the Gulf of Mexico as Florida does about a spill arriving from Cuba," said Lee Hunt, an oil drilling consultant based in Houston.

A case in point was the Deepwater Horizon blowout in April 2010 off the coast of Louisiana that killed 11 and sent more than 200 million gallons of oil into the gulf.

The occasion of the March meeting is the Model for International Cooperation conference, held every three years by consultant Petty's firm Hunt Petty as a way for public and private sector representatives from the two countries to discuss oil spill prevention and preparation.

The conference is March 5 and 6 at Nova Southeastern University. The leaders who can hammer out any government oil spill protocol already were attending the conference and decided to stay in town longer for meetings together behind closed doors.

The State Department said two days were set aside after the conference.

Hunt expects any agreement to spell out how the two nations will handle oil spill considerations such as air and sea traffic control, joint military exercises and military personnel.

Within two years of approving the protocol, Hunt estimates, the countries could begin conducting exercises together.

The bilateral meeting is among several in recent months that involve the United States and Cuba, on topics that also include money laundering, trafficking in humans and drugs, and counter-terrorism.

They come as the Trump administration has pulled back on some of the moves toward normalization with begun under President Barack Obama after five decades of isolation rooted in the Cold War.

Considering renewed U.S. interest in offshore drilling, the oil meeting is timely, said Dan Whittle, who directs the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund's marine and coastal conservation projects in Cuba,

Much of Florida's waters, including all those within 235 miles of the Tampa Bay area, are unavailable to drilling, protected by a moratorium through 2022.

In early January, the Trump administration proposed opening all available U.S. coastal waters to oil exploration. But days later, Florida governor and Trump ally Rick Scott intervened in a successful attempt to have the state exempted.

Any blocks of submerged Florida land that was unavailable for drilling before Trump was sworn into office appears to remain unavailable now, said Brian Petty, Hunt's partner.

But on March 21, a sale is scheduled of lands approved for drilling during the Obama administration — 77 million acres in Gulf Coast waters along the coasts of the Florida Panhandle, as well as Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

These areas will include a "small slice" of 944,000 acres stretching from a point as close as 100 miles from Pensacola's shores to several hundred miles off Fort Walton Beach, according to the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a division of the Interior Department.

Exploration isn't expected in these areas for another four years, Hunt said.

As far as they are from Cuba, off the southern end of Florida, currents from spills off the Panhandle still could sweep oil into the waters of the island nation, Hunt said.

Cuba has come up dry so far in exploratory drilling among its submerged lands, expected to contain some 20 billion barrels of oil.

More exploration is expected but has been limited by the island's struggling economy, the low cost of oil and a U.S. embargo that limits the number of rigs available for use there.

Hunt estimates it could be two to four years before Cuba finds a partner willing to work with the nation on such a risky and expensive undertaking.

Still, Whittle with the Environmental Defense Fund said action must be taken now to protect the nations later.

"In the current climate, either side could have walked away and nothing could have happened," Whittle said. "I'm glad they decided to get together."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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