Report: Florida at risk from Cuba drilling

WASHINGTON -- A new report says the United States’ Cuba policy puts the U.S. -- and particularly Florida -- at risk if planned oil drilling in Cuba results in a spill.

The report by the Center for Democracy in the Americas -- which backs increased engagement with Cuba -- says the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba prevents the island nation from “having adequate access to the range of tools needed to drill safely or respond to emergencies should one develop.

“The embargo restricts Cuba’s access to knowledge and associations that would help it plan for or react to a spill,” the report says. “The embargo prevents meaningful participation by U.S. private sector firms in planning for reaction, containment or remediation efforts.”

Lisa Margonelli, the director of the Energy Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation, who traveled with the group to Cuba last July, noted that with oil spills “time is of the essence.”

“This current set up doesn’t allow for dispatching equipment from the Gulf Coast or for even having plans in place,” she said.

The report recommends that the Obama administration enter into direct talks with Cuba over energy and the environment and use its authority to make it easier for firms and individuals with spill expertise to be deployed in the event of a spill. The presidential commission appointed after the oil spill last summer in the Gulf of Mexico made a similar recommendation.

The push for greater talks with Cuba comes as a semisubmersible rig is being readied in Singapore for use in Cuba, which now relies on Venezuela for two-thirds of its daily oil supply, the report notes. Cuba has said it plans to drill deeper than the BP drill that blew up last year in the Gulf of Mexico and the report notes that the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that Cuba has 4.6 billion barrels of oil and 8.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in undiscovered reserves.

But Mauricio Claver-Carone, a director of the pro-embargo US-Cuba Democracy political action committee, called it “ironic and unlikely a coincidence” that the report was released the same week that news reports suggested that the rig’s arrival in Cuba has again been delayed.

“Bottom line is that there are no rigs drilling offshore in Cuba, for it remains commercially unfeasible as long as U.S. sanctions are in place,’’ he said. “If these lobbyists really want to protect the environment, they should begin by supporting U.S. sanctions.”

Quoting sources, Reuters reported earlier this week that delivery of the Chinese-built drilling rig “looks unlikely until at least August.”

The center’s report notes that under U.S. policy, drilling in U.S. waters in the Gulf of Mexico is “tightly regulated, but Florida’s $27 billion ocean economy is left vulnerable due to the absence of cooperation with Cuba.”

Florida lawmakers have proposed various ways of trying to block Cuba from drilling for oil, including imposing sanctions on companies that aid Cuba, like Spain’s Repsol.

But the report says those attempts could backfire: “Eliminating companies like Repsol from competing to bid on U.S. offshore oil resources deprives U.S. taxpayers of revenues that would accrue in a more free market. In other words, limiting competition for U.S. oil resources for political reasons does a disservice to U.S. taxpayers.”

The group backs legislation filed by Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Louisiana Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu that would allow U.S. firms to participate in oil exploration and crisis planning with Cuba.