Not Like Oil and Water – Cuba and the US Can Cooperate on Drilling

September 7, 2012

During the research and writing phase for our report on Cuba’s plans to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, Daniel Whittle, Cuba Program Director for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), provided invaluable information and guidance to us.

He has guest written the following opening essay on his organization’s analysis of foreign policy obstacles to cooperation with Cuba to protect the environment and some promising progress that is now being made because our country and Cuba are sitting at the table together:

The Environmental Defense Fund recently released a report called Bridging the Gulf in which we concluded that “current U.S. foreign policy on Cuba creates a conspicuous blind spot” that is detrimental to the interests of both countries.  A failure to cooperate on oil spill planning, prevention, and response in the Gulf of Mexico could result in devastating environmental and economic impacts on a scale greater than the 2010 BP oil disaster.

Recently, I witnessed a potential bright spot in US-Cuba relations that could lead to real and meaningful cooperation in protecting Cuban and American shores from future oil spills.

As the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA was preparing to drill off of Cuba’s northwest coast in August, U.S. and Cuban negotiators met in Mexico City to discuss how to work together to prevent and respond to future oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.  The meeting was the fourth in a series of landmark talks hosted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and included officials from Mexico, Jamaica, Bahamas, and other countries in the region.  I was among the handful of industry and environmental representatives invited to attend.

I was struck by the candid back-and-forth discussions on the risks involved in deep water oil drilling and by the constructive exchanges between delegates from Cuba and the United States.  I came away convinced that negotiators from both countries are operating in good faith and are committed to making progress on this issue.

That being said, more needs to be done.

Attendees agreed that the BP oil disaster was a wake-up call and that failure to heed the lessons learned from it would be an inexcusable and costly mistake. Chief among those lessons is that oil spills do not observe political boundaries and, as such, joint planning among all countries in the region is critical. The event also taught us that sufficient public and private resources must be available to contain and clean-up oil pollution as soon as possible.  In fact, the scale of response needed for the BP spill was unprecedented—6,500 vessels, 125 planes, 48,000 responders, and equipment resourced globally.

Several presenters in Mexico City emphasized that full and timely access to private sector equipment and response personnel, wherever they are located, is fundamental to responding effectively to future oil spills.

This lesson is particularly relevant to the current U.S.-Cuba talks.

If a major oil spill were to occur in Cuban waters anytime soon, the U.S. Coast Guard—as incident commander—would be able to marshal the resources needed to address oil pollution after it enters our waters.  The agency has neither the authority nor the mandate, however, to support response and clean-up activities in Cuban waters.  Furthermore, the Cuban government would be hamstrung in its ability to solicit direct help from private sector oil spill response companies in the United States.  Currently, only a few American companies are licensed by the U.S. government to work in Cuba (actual names and numbers of license holders are not a matter of public record.).

The Obama Administration could solve this problem by directing the Treasury Department to adopt a new category of general licenses to allow U.S. individuals from qualified oil services and equipment companies to travel to Cuba and provide technical expertise in the event of an oil disaster.  The Administration should also direct the Commerce Department to pre-approve licenses for the temporary export of U.S. equipment, vessels, and technology to Cuba for use during a significant oil spill.

The U.S. and Cuba have laid an unprecedented foundation for cooperation on offshore oil safety and environmental protection.  They should continue their talks in earnest and produce a written agreement on joint planning, preparedness and response as soon as possible.

What Dan describes here, unfortunately, is extraordinary.  In fact, it should be typical.  Engagement between the U.S. and Cuba on a host of issues is the right way forward, and a means to the larger end of bringing confidence to this relationship that will lead to a discussion of the differences that divide us and, ultimately, normalization.  We thank Dan for his leadership and his contribution.

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