South Florida's fragile coastal environment and multibillion-dollar tourist industry are threatened by Cuba's apparent plans to restart its offshore oil-drilling program next year without adequate safety measures in place to prevent or contain a catastrophic spill.
Environmentalists and others, including former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, co-chairman of the 2010 national commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, have responded with a push to change the U.S. trade embargo to allow Cuba to buy state-of-the-art safety equipment from U.S. sources.
"We're not doing the Cubans a favor," said Graham, who led an American delegation to Havana in January to meet with Cuban officials. "We are protecting ourselves by decreasing the chances of an event which would be extremely damaging to the United States and, in particular, South Florida."
The tide in the Straits of Florida between Cuba and the Keys, where the Cubans would drill, runs west to east, then turns north along Florida's coastline.
"The entire east coast of Florida would be at risk. The Gulfstream could potentially carry oil from a major spill up the coast as far as North Carolina before it veers off into the Atlantic," said Dan
Whittle, Cuban program director for the Environmental Defense Fund.
"What we're shooting for is basically a world without the embargo with respect to offshore oil exploration," said Whittle.
Earlier this month, Graham met with a White House official to discuss the matter. "He seemed receptive to the argument that the U.S. is the most at-risk party," said Graham, who did not name the official.
The Council on Foreign Relations, the New York-based think tank that sponsored Graham's Havana trip, will hold a private, invitation-only event to alert certain South Florida business interests about the pollution threat a large spill would pose.
"The council is seeking to organize a workshop primarily focused on the tourism industry, which would be the most immediately effected if there was a major spill," Graham said.
Anti-spill efforts by nongovernmental organizations like the council have been accompanied by recent governmental action.
In March, after several years of talks, officials in the United States and Cuba joined with other nations in a little-noticed agreement to adopt nonbinding procedures to streamline international cooperation efforts in the event of an oil spill. Mexico, The Bahamas and Jamaica also participated.
The intent of the so-called Wider Caribbean Region Multilateral Technical Procedures "is to build a responder-to-responder network so that in the event of a large oil spill, participating countries can work effectively together to minimize environmental impacts," according to the 60-page document.
Cuba's renewed interest in finding oil in its sovereign waters about 50 miles south of the Florida Keys, in waters a mile deep, is motivated by its desire to have greater control over its energy supply. Today, Cuba's primary source of oil is an unstable Venezuela.
Twice before, while working with a Spanish oil firm, Cuba drilled dry wells. According to Graham, however, the Cuban officials he met with believe recent seismic data sufficiently compelling to justify further exploration in the deep water of the Florida Straits.
The Cubans told Graham their future partners in any search for oil would likely be from Brazil or Angola.
"The concern that a number of us have is that other than those failed efforts by the Spanish, Cuba has had no experience with deepwater drilling and we learned with BP how fragile that process can be," said Graham. "Cuba also has limited access to the kind of technology which would mitigate against an accident during the drilling process and has no capability to respond were there to be one."
The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, killed 11 workers, injured 16 and spilled oil that ultimately spread across more than 1,000 miles of shoreline in Louisiana, Mississippi Alabama and Florida, according to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration. BP has spent more than $25 billion in clean up and settlement costs.
Graham and Whittle agreed a similar spill in the Florida Straits could be worse.
"There are more entities that would be effected. It would also have a deleterious effect on the coral reefs and the mangroves and the fish," said Graham.
"Marine life in the Gulfstream would be damaged," said Whittle. "Ecosystem damage would also happen along the northwest and north central coast of Cuba. Seagrass, mangroves and coral systems could be devastated."
They say a modification of the U.S. trade embargo is necessary to allow Cuba access to advanced U.S. technology, like blowout preventers and rigs, needed to lessen the likelihood of a spill.
Under the embargo, items that have more than 10 percent U.S. content cannot be sold to Cuba.
The embargo should also be changed to allow Cuba to participate in the 24-hour response capability established by oil companies in the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon spill, Graham said.
The embargo has been changed before to protect U.S. interests regarding sea search and rescue, weather information sharing and drug trafficking.
Whittle, who accompanied Graham to Havana, said Cuban officials don't want a spill and have expressed interest in acquiring U.S. safety technology.
What if Cuba should ultimately decide not to drill?
"We won't have lost anything," said Graham. "But on the other hand, if they are refused and they buy a blowout preventer from some less sophisticated manufacturer and end up with an accident, we are going to face the consequences."