|Cuban oil would boost the economy and reduce the island nation's dependence on Venezuela [GALLO/GETTY]
With a giant deep-water oil rig steaming slowly toward the Gulf of Mexico and the waters just off Cuba, the administration of President Barack Obama is being pushed and pulled by different interests over what, if anything, to do about it.
On the one hand, anti-Castro Cuban-American and other right-wing lawmakers are expressing growing exasperation over what they see as Washington's failure to do whatever it can to prevent the new, $750m Scarabeo 9 from fulfilling its mission to begin exploratory drilling off the island's northwest coast by early next year.
They appear increasingly worried that the rig, which will be operated initially by the Spanish oil company, Repsol-YPF, may find commercially exploitable quantities of oil under Cuba's waters and thus provide a "windfall" for Havana that will be used to help sustain the Communist government led by President Raul Castro.
On the other hand, some environmental and anti-embargo groups, including business associations that want to increase trade with Havana, are calling on Obama to engage the Cuban government more directly in the interests of both protecting the Gulf’s ecology from a possible spill and ensuring that US oil service companies will be able to help contain the damage, should such an accident take place.
Less than 18 months after the Deepwater Horizon blow-out that sent nearly five million barrels of oil pouring into the Gulf over a three-month period, they argue that Washington should work closely with both the Cuban government and Repsol, as well as other third-country companies that will operate the rig, to both minimise the risk of a similar accident and contain its impact if there is one.
So far, the administration appears to be trying to steer a middle course, satisfying neither side.
The US Geological Service estimates that there could be undiscovered reserves of up to six billion barrels of oil under Cuban waters, only 100 km from the Florida Keys - while others have suggested there could be as much as several times that amount.
And while it would take at least a couple of years before those reserves could be tapped commercially, they would provide a huge boost to the struggling Cuban economy, which currently depends on the largess of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for more than two-thirds of its daily crude oil requirements.
Too close for comfort
"We are extremely concerned over what seems to be a lack of a coordinated effort by the administration to prevent a state sponsor of terrorism, just 90 miles from our shores, from engaging in risky deep sea oil drilling projects that will harm US interests as well as extend another economic lifeline to the Cuban regime," complained four Cuban-American congressmen in a letter to Obama earlier this week.
They demanded, among other things, that the administration investigate whether any part of the Scarabeo has been made with US-origin parts in violation of the 49-year-old US trade embargo, and whether Obama’s own Interior Department may itself be violating the law by providing Repsol with technical advice.
"The administration needs to provide answers and change course," said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, one of the four lawmakers and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who in September also helped persuade 35 of her House colleagues to sign a letter to Repsol's chairman urging him to immediately halt the company’s plans to drill.
The signatories included most lawmakers from Florida whose Gulf coast would almost certainly be affected by any spill originating in the drilling area.
Repsol has become the main target of Congressional opposition to the project primarily because it is the only publicly traded company with substantial investments in the US in a multinational consortium that includes the state oil companies of Malaysia, Brazil, Norway, Angola and several other countries.
Repsol, which has issued repeated assurances that the rig's operation and equipment will meet US standards, has agreed to permit a team from the US Coast Guard and the Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) to inspect the Scarabeo and its drilling equipment when it reaches Trinidad and Tobago later this month.
While that inspection won't be as comprehensive as Washington would like, BSEE director Michael Bromwich told a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources: "In our judgment, it's a lot better than nothing."
The administration is also using the multilateral International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to have its Coast Guard officers sit down with Cuban and other officials from the northern Caribbean next month to discuss measures for dealing with spills under the 1990 International Convention on Oil Pollution, Preparedness, Response and Cooperation (OPRC).
In fact, the $750m Scarabeo is considered pretty much state of the art. It was designed by Norwegian engineers; its structure was built in China; and it was fitted with the latest deep-water drilling technology in Singapore.
The need for cooperation
But the fear of a major accident has prompted a number of environmental groups and independent experts to urge the administration to become significantly more engaged with both the Cuban government and all of the companies that will be operating the rig.
In particular, they want the administration to issue a general licence for US oil services companies to work in Cuba, which would permit them to respond quickly to any spill or related emergency resulting from drilling operations. Under the trade embargo, each company would have to apply for a special license to do so.
"We are very naive to think that, in the case of Cuba, a handful of individual exports licences could prevent and contain a deepwater oil exploratory well blow-out," Jorge Pinon, a former oil executive and consultant at Florida International University, told the Subcommittee.
"A general licence to export and supply equipment, personnel and services to international oil companies operating in Cuba in the case of an emergency is urgently needed," he stressed, noting that more than 5,000 vessels, millions of metres of booms; and nearly eight million litres of dispersant were deployed to contain the Deepwater Horizon spill.
That message was echoed by Daniel Whittle, who directs the Cuba programme at the Environmental Defense Fund and who organised a delegation headed by President George HW Bush's environment chief, William Reilly, that visited Cuba earlier this year. Reilly was the co-chairman of the national commission that investigated the Deepwater disaster.
"First and foremost, the administration should take steps now to ensure that US-based companies are pre-authorised to assist in preventing and containing major oil spills in Cuban waters," he testified.
"It's critical to get US companies into the act because of their technology, know-how, and proximity," agreed Jake Colvin, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), a business lobby that represents major multi-national corporations. "While the administration has the authority to licence a rapid response by those companies in the event of an accident, it hasn't yet authorised it."
"The reason they're not issuing a general licence is entirely political," according to Sarah Stephen, the director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas, which has lobbied against the embargo and last summer published a booklet on Cuba's drilling plans.
"The administration clearly understands the urgency here, but it's worried about the pressure from Congress, especially from the Floridians," she said.
A version of this article was first published on Inter Press Service.