Four U.S. inspectors armed with safety glasses and notebooks will set out on a mission next month to protect Florida’s beaches from a Cuban threat.
They’ll rendezvous in Trinidad and Tobago with the Scarabeo 9, a rig headed to deep waters off Cuba to drill for oil about 70 miles (113 kilometers) south of Florida’s Key West.
Repsol YPF SA is making the Scarabeo 9 available to the U.S. inspectors before the rig starts drilling closer to Florida than the BP Plc well that failed last year in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the biggest U.S. offshore oil spill. The exploration poses an environmental, political and diplomatic challenge to the U.S. more than 50 years after cutting off relations with Cuba’s communist regime.
The Obama administration’s dilemma is “what steps to take for environmental protection and how much to honor current Cuba policy,” Dan Whittle, Cuba program director at the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund, said in an interview.
In the aftermath of the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, the U.S. banned exports to Cuba in 1960, withdrew diplomatic recognition, backed the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and imposed a full trade embargo in 1962.
Now generations of animosity between the two nations limit cooperation on safety standards and cleanup precautions for the Cuba drilling planned by Madrid-based Repsol, which would be followed by state-owned companies from Malaysia to Venezuela. A conference on regional oil-spill response being held this week in Nassau, Bahamas, may provide a forum for discussions by U.S. and Cuban representatives.
Juan Jacomino, a spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section at the Swiss embassy in Washington, declined in an interview to comment on drilling off of the island nation.
Repsol can use the Scarabeo 9 without violating the U.S. trade embargo because it was built at shipyards in China and Singapore, and fewer than 10 percent of its components are American, according to its owner, Eni SpA.
The sanctions would block spare parts from the U.S. for the rig’s blowout preventer, a safety device that failed in the BP spill. The restrictions also require Helix Energy Solutions Group Inc. of Houston, which provides oil-spill containment equipment for Repsol in the Gulf of Mexico, to seek a waiver to do so in Cuban waters in case of an accident.
U.S. companies seeking to do business with Cuba must ask the Commerce Department, which considers most applications “subject to a policy of denial,” the agency says on its website. The Treasury Department weighs requests to travel from the U.S. to Cuba.
Granting too few permits for spill prevention and response would keep contractors from offering the technology and services developed after the BP spill, Lee Hunt, president of the Houston-based International Association of Drilling Contractors, said in an interview.
Approving too many licenses would undermine the embargo, enriching a regime listed by the U.S. State Department as a nation supporting terrorism along with Iran, Sudan and Syria, according to anti-Castro lawmakers such as Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
U.S. “assistance, guidance and technical advice” to Repsol, including the planned visit to Scarabeo 9, may violate the law by “helping to facilitate” the company’s work and providing the Cuban government “with a financial windfall,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a Nov. 1 letter to President Barack Obama.
Ros-Lehtinen, who immigrated from Cuba with her family at age 8, is a leader among Cuban exiles in South Florida who have opposed easing U.S. restrictions. Florida, which has been a swing state in presidential elections, also has been a bastion of opposition to oil drilling that opponents say could despoil the beaches that are a prime draw for tourists.
Florida Drilling Foes
Lawmakers such as Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, have fought to keep drilling out of U.S. waters in the eastern Gulf of Mexico bordering Florida.
Nelson and Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, introduced a bill Nov. 9 that would require foreign companies drilling in Cuban waters to pay for damage to U.S. territory without liability limits. Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, joined as a cosponsor.
Oil from BP’s spill tarred beaches 150 miles away in Florida’s northwestern Panhandle.
Now Floridians are faced with drilling under the jurisdiction of Cubans, who “don’t have the resources” to control a blowout, Jorge Pinon, an energy consultant and visiting research fellow at the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami, said in an interview.
“If the U.S. is not willing to help” in an emergency, “the resources are going to come from Canada, Norway and the U.K., and it will take a very long time,” said Pinon, who led Amoco Corp. units in Mexico City and retired from BP in 2003, according to his biography.
Repsol signed a contract with Cuba in 2000, according to the company’s website, and confirmed the presence of oil with a Norwegian rig in 2004. Repsol will drill in about 5,000 feet (1.5 kilometers) to 6,000 feet of water, about the depth of BP’s Macondo well, according to Pinon.
Petroliam Nasional Bhd., or Petronas, based in Kuala Lumpur; New Delhi-based Oil & Natural Gas Corp.; Hanoi-based Vietnam Oil & Gas Group, known as PetroVietnam; Caracas-based Petroleos de Venezuela SA; and Sonangol SA of Luanda, Angola, also hold Cuban blocks, Pinon said.
U.S. officials say they are doing all they can to ensure safe drilling off Cuba.
“We are quite focused, and have been for many, many months” on “doing anything within our power to protect U.S. shores and U.S. coastline,” Tommy Beaudreau, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, an industry regulator, said in a Nov. 29 interview at Bloomberg’s Washington office.
Wild Well Control
The administration has issued some licenses to U.S. companies to respond to a spill in Cuban waters, Mark Toner, a spokesman for the State Department, said in an e-mail. He didn’t say how many have been approved, and the Commerce and Treasury departments didn’t respond to e-mailed requests for comment.
Wild Well Control Inc. of Houston is one permit recipient, according to Hunt of the drilling contractors’ trade group. The company didn’t respond to e-mails and phone calls seeking comment.
“Helix plans to build a new subsea containment cap to safeguard drilling operations in Cuba,” Cameron Wallace, a spokesman for that company said in an e-mail about its request for U.S. licenses. “The cap and associated equipment will be staged at a U.S. port near to the drilling site to minimize response time.”
Walking the Deck
In their visit to the Scarabeo 9, two inspectors from the U.S. Coast Guard and two from the Interior Department will walk the deck and check generators, the positioning system and firefighting equipment, Brian Khey, who will be on the team, said in an interview.
The Americans will watch a firefighting simulation and conduct an abandon-ship drill, according to Khey, the supervisor at the Coast Guard’s Outer Continental Shelf National Center of Expertise in Morgan City, Louisiana,
While the visitors will discuss with Repsol any deficiencies they find, they won’t have enforcement powers, Khey said. Nor will they be able to check the blowout preventer or the well casing and drilling fluid that will be used on site, according to the Interior Department.
Scarabeo 9 was built “according to the latest and most advanced international standards available at the time of her design and construction,” Rome-based Eni said in an e-mailed statement. “Health, safety and environmental protection are always a top priority.”
The vessel “is one of the very few units in the industry which is using a technology which is not an American one,” Pietro Franco Tali, chief executive officer of Eni’s oilfield-services subsidiary, Saipem SpA, said on an Oct. 27, 2010, conference call.
One U.S. component is the blowout preventer, made by Houston-based National Oilwell Varco Inc. The company hasn’t applied for a license to do business with Cuba and doesn’t plan to, Chief Financial Officer Clay Williams said in a phone interview.
That means rig operators will have to seek training and spare parts in Europe or Asia, according to Hunt, whose group represents 1,494 companies including Saipem.
“It’s like buying a Mercedes and being told you have to go to a Ford dealer for parts,” Hunt said in an interview.
The results of Cuba’s drilling may affect U.S. energy policy. Success would put pressure on the U.S. to open its waters surrounding Florida for exploration, Pinon said.
A serious accident off of Cuba could throw the industry out of the Gulf of Mexico, according to Brian Petty, executive vice president for governmental affairs of the drilling contractors’ group.
“A mess” in Cuban waters would lead critics of drilling to say, “Stop it, don’t let it go on anywhere,” Petty said.