Witnesses discuss US ability to respond to oil spill offshore Cuba

The US is working with adjacent countries to develop effective responses to offshore crude oil spills that could threaten US coasts, a US Department of the Interior official told a US House subcommittee.

Other witnesses suggested that more needs to be done, particularly in regard to Cuba.

Michael R. Bromwich, interim director of the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, told the House Natural Resources Committee’s Energy and Minerals Subcommittee that the US government is in close contact with Repsol-YPF SA as it prepares to drill offshore Cuba.

The US government will use all appropriate resources and authority to respond to any spill in Cuban or other waters.

“The administration has engaged state and local governments and private parties that might be affected by such a spill to ensure awareness and mutual cooperation and the adequacy of five different existing area contingency plans covering Florida where models predict varying probabilities of US shoreline impacts should a spill occur at the planned exploratory drilling locations in Cuban waters,” he said in written testimony for the subcommittee’s Nov. 2 hearing.

BSEE staff is working with the US Coast Guard’s Miami office to develop an international offshore drilling response plan and will participate in a workshop about the plan, Bromwich continued.

“We will continue with active support of these efforts to ensure that appropriate plans and resources are in place to respond in a rapid and effective manner to an oil spill that reaches US waters,” he said.

The US Departments of Commerce and Treasury also have a long-standing practice of providing licenses for US companies to respond to environmental emergencies in Cuban waters.

BSEE is working closely with other federal agencies on initiatives with other countries, including Cuba, Mexico, the Bahamas, and Jamaica, Bromwich said.

More bilateral agreements

More needs to be done in the way of bilateral agreements, two witnesses testified.

Jorge R. Pinon, visiting research fellow at Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute, said the US has agreements of cooperation with Mexico and Canada regarding an oil spill.

Daniel J. Whittle, a senior attorney and Cuba program director at the Environmental Defense Fund, said a similar bilateral agreement is urgently needed with Cuba and the Bahamas.

Current US policies toward Cuba allow scientific, academic, and conservation groups to conduct on-the-ground research projects with Cuban partners and institutions, but these exchanges generally involve nongovernmental groups and institutions.

“Most private companies are prohibited from doing business in Cuba because of the embargo,” Whittle told the subcommittee. “There is a narrow exception for some private entities, such as oil service companies, but they must first apply for specific approval from the US Treasury and Commerce Departments to provide services and export equipment to Cuba.”

Few oil service companies have requested specific licenses, probably because the process is complicated and time-consuming, he said.

“In the event of an oil spill in Cuban waters, this licensing process would cost precious time,” Whittle said. “We are very naive to think that in the case of Cuba, a handful of individual export licenses could prevent and contain a deepwater oil exploratory well blowout.”

He advocated a general license to export and supply equipment, personnel, and services to international oil companies operating in Cuba in the case of an emergency.

He also suggested US regulators have not yet considered that Malaysian national oil company Petronas plans to drill in Cuban waters using the same rig once Repsol finishes with it.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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