Cuba’s Gulf of Mexico Oil Exploration Makes Strange Bedfellows

US Enviro Groups and Oil Execs Band Together to Promote End of Cold War-Era Hostilities Between Two Nations

From his hotel in Havana, marine scientist and conservation policy specialist David Guggenheim, aka the “Ocean Doctor,” can see the lights of Scarabeo 9. The recently arrived oil-drilling platform off the Cuban coast began drilling exploratory deepwater wells on the Cuban side of the Florida Straits, about 70 miles from Key West, last month.

Photo Courtesy MapquestLast month, Spanish oil company Repsol began exploratory drilling on the Cuban side of the Florida
Straits, about 70 miles from Key West. US environmentalists and policymakers are concerned that
Cuba doesn’t have the resources, technology, or expertise needed to deal with a Deepwater Horizon-
like disaster.

The 53,000-ton rig is, literally, under more pressure than Deepwater Horizon. Operated by Spanish company Repsol, it’s what’s known as an “ultra-deepwater” platform, drilling at depths up to 6,000 feet. (Deepwater Horizon’s depth was 5,000 feet.) A Scarabeo 9 spill would damage critical marine ecosystems in the Gulf. US environmentalists and policymakers are concerned that Cuba doesn’t have the resources, technology, or expertise needed to prevent or respond to such a disaster.

But even the threat of irreparable environmental damage hasn’t been enough to clear away old Cold War resentments and political inertia between the two countries and get them working together to formulate an emergency response plan. Which is why an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, oil executives, and scientists — like Guggenheim — are joining forces to try to, in his words, “fight half a century of an illogical policy with logic.”


Between North Cuba and South Florida lie the narrow Florida Straits — a channel of water that connects the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. The straits carry the Florida Current, the origin of the Gulf Stream and what allows Cuban refugees to reach the US with only a raft. In the case of a spill at Scarabeo, it is feared that the same current could spread oil up the Gulf Stream to the US east coast.

(Similar fears were expressed after the BP disaster in the spring of 2010. That scenario didn’t happen because a gyre formed and kept the oil in the Gulf of Mexico, with drastic consequences for its ecosystems and fauna—from oysters, to pelicans, to human beings whose way of life depends on the Gulf.)

Cuba, whose share of the Gulf of Mexico was established in 1977 after it signed a treaty with the US and Mexico, has made major investments in offshore oil exploration. Cuban officials say the northern waters of the Gulf, which are part of its exclusive economic zone, have more than 20 million barrels of oil reserves. (The US Geological Survey, however, estimates that the Cuban zone contains about 4.6 billion barrels of oil.) Cuba hopes the offshore reserves will revive its economy and make it energy self-sufficient. The well being drilled by Scarabeo 9 is just the first of several exploratory wells in the offing. Cuba has also signed deals with Brazilian and Russian state oil companies for oil exploration rights off its north shore.

Meanwhile, in the US, drilling for oil in the eastern Gulf of Mexico is banned, largely in order to preserve Florida’s beaches and marine life that bring in much of the state’s tourism-based revenue. In February 2010, the Florida legislature was debating lifting the ban, but the BP disaster put the kibosh on that — temporarily.

Florida’s 800 miles of coast are far from as unspoiled as Cuba’s, but they still contain invaluable ecological treasures. Kayak in Florida Bay, part of the iconic Everglades National Park, and dolphins will frolic alongside you. The sea grass beds of Biscayne Bay support manatees, sea turtles, and sharks.

Because Florida’s ecosystems are already stressed from the pressures of six million people and their sewage, the effects of a massive oil spill, not to mention the chemical dispersant, would be disastrous, says Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association.

The region is also home to the only mangroves in the continental United States. A study (pdf) by the USGS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that there is no way of cleaning up an oil spill in mangroves. Since mangroves take in salt water and release it through their leaves, it would suck up the oil and dispersant would and then die of suffocation.

“If you kill off the coastal mangroves,” says Schwartz, “you lose the coastline.”

(The pristine Cuban waters have arguably even more to lose. “I’ve been diving for nearly 40 years and I’ve never seen coral reefs healthy as I’ve seen here,” says Guggenheim, referring to the reefs at Cuba’s “Gardens of the Queen” marine reserve. “Many of them are probably nearly as healthy as they were 500 years ago when Columbus first came. They’re a living laboratory from which we could learn to restore coral reefs elsewhere.” Guggenheim has been working hard to get the US, Cuba and Mexico to collaborate more on marine science and conservation issues.)


Still, at least in Florida, it seems environmental threats are taking a backseat to Cold War politics.

At a January congressional subcommittee hearing, representatives seemed less willing to dialogue with Cuba on damage control, and more concerned with punishing Repsol for daring to operate in Communist territory. “We need to figure out what we can do to inflict maximum pain, maximum punishment, to bleed Repsol of whatever resources they may have,” said Rep. David Rivera (R-FL).

These sentiments were echoed in a letter sent by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), co-signed by Rivera and 34 other members of Congress to Repsol. Former DHS assistant secretary Juliette Kayyem responded in a Washington Post column, “That’s their only concern? This letter was sent in 2011… It could have been drafted in 1961.”

Administration representatives’ testimony at the hearing “really came up empty to me,” Guggenheim says. “I don’t think they’re in any way prepared to deal with an oil spill that requires significant coordination and collaboration with Cuba.”

The US embargo against Cuba does complicate matters quite a bit. Basically it means US companies can’t do any work on the rig, even during an emergency, without special permission from the federal government. This can lead to some bizarre scenarios. For instance, in the event of a spill, American aircraft can’t be used to fly over Cuban waters. Instead, the Cubans plan is to retrofit aging crop dusters from farms for the job, according to the Washington Post. The paper also reported that a crucial component of safety equipment called a capping stack would have to be delivered to Cuba from Scotland, even though it’s manufactured in Houston.

The threat of an oil spill and the diplomatic tangle that could seriously hamper safety and disaster relief efforts has made some strange bedfellows: Environmental groups and oil company executives are banding together — via the UN International Maritime Organization —to fund US-Cuba talks in neutral locations like Curaçao and the Bahamas.

Little by little, individuals from both countries are bridging the gap. “We’re the diplomats,” says Guggenheim. “When you come here [to Cuba], you realize these people are gifted, natural allies and reliable partners.” In a small victory for cooperation, a NOAA representative from the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary visited Cuba last year for a workshop.

Another sign of progress: The report of the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Spill and Offshore Drilling, makes specific reference to Cuba and calls for establishing international safety standards for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. “I congratulate them for the bravery of putting the word ‘Cuba’ into a federal report, because you just mention that and people go nuts,” says Guggenheim.

President Obama’s administration has rolled back some of the Bush-era restrictions on Cuban travel, with demonstrable results. Americans are flocking to Cuban people-to-people exchange programs. In an election year, however, it’s unlikely this administration will make further strides on opening a relationship with Cuba.

Still, conservationists say, something must be done.

“The marine ecosystem that exists between Florida and Cuba does not have international boundaries,” says Schwartz. “These lines may exist on a map, but the marine animals that migrate back and forth don’t know about them. No matter how we as humans think of it, clearly the marine life that shares the habitat with us is going to be the ultimate victim of any mishap.”

From Cuba, Guggenheim agrees. “I still hold in my heart this idealistic belief that marine biology can be a uniting force between our countries,” he says. “Sometimes you don’t get along with your neighbor, but if something happens in the neighborhood that affects everybody, you’ve got to find a way to work together.”

Karen Hoffmann is a freelance journalist covering human rights, science and culture, with a focus on Latin America. Follow her on Twitter at @karhoff.

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