Dear EarthTalk: Cuba just began drilling for oil not far from U.S. shores and hopes to become a major exporter. What ramifications does this have for the environment?
–Betsy Shaw, Troy, NY
Cuba recently began drilling exploratory oil wells 30 miles off of its northern coast—and just 60 miles south of the Florida Keys. Earlier this year the Scarabeo 9 oil rig finished up a long slow journey by sea from the shipyard that birthed it in China to Cuba’s territorial waters off the capital city of Havana (the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba forbids such equipment going from or through the United States).
Geologists estimate that the rock formations off Cuba’s northern coast could yield anywhere from five to 20 billion barrels of oil. American foreign policy experts are concerned that Cuba’s inexperience with off-shore drilling could lead to a spill in sensitive waters not unlike the 2010 BP oil disaster. They’re also worried that Cuba could yield more political and economic power if it becomes a net exporter of oil.
Although Cuba is reportedly using state-of-the-art equipment and is working with experienced international drilling contractors, some U.S. environmental groups are still troubled: “A major oil spill in Cuban waters could devastate both coastal Cuba and the United States,” reports the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). “Florida’s $60 billion tourism and fishing industries—as well as the Dry Tortugas marine sanctuary and deepwater corals in the Southeast Atlantic—are at stake.”
Today Cuba imports half of the 200,000 barrels of oil it consumes each day from its friendly neighbor to the south, Venezuela. The other half of Cuba’s oil comes from its own two existing on-shore oil facilities. Finding significant off-shore reserves could end its dependency on Venezuela and turn Cuba into an oil exporter, possibly even thawing relations with a still oil-hungry U.S. Indeed, if the find is big enough, U.S.-based oil firms may want in, and who knows how that will affect the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba.
Given the environmental and political implications of Cuba’s foray into offshore drilling, EDF led a delegation to the island nation in September 2011. The goal of the delegation, which included co-chair of the BP oil spill commission and former EPA Administrator William Reilly, was to assess Cuba’s plans and to share lessons learned about the risks of offshore drilling with officials there. “The trip put the spotlight on the lack of dialogue between the United States and Cuba on how to prepare and respond to an oil spill in Cuban waters,” says Lee Hunt of the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC), one of the trip’s organizers. EDF, IADC and others would like to see the Obama administration initiate direct negotiations with Cuba to ensure that sufficient environmental and safety standards are in place.
“It’s a sensitive political issue because if there were a spill, U.S. technology might be prevented from being quickly deployed due to the long-running U.S. embargo of Cuba,” reports EDF. “The United States has more than 5,000 wells in its territorial waters in the Gulf. But none are nearly as close to the Florida coast as the proposed sites off Havana.”
But with the test drilling already underway, Cuba isn’t waiting around for U.S. input. No doubt, if the exploratory wells are a success, Cuban oil will become a huge political issue.