The scenario is fiction, but the high-level attention it is drawing to a looming Florida threat is real.
“The middle keys were awash in Cuban crude. Miles of pristine coastline bore the unmistakable scars of a massive spill: Oil-covered pelicans floundering in black goop, manatees washing up dead on the beach, coral rocks along the shoreline resembling giant lumps of coal.”
The excerpt is from the novel “Black Horizon” by James Grippando, about potential damage from a Cuban oil spill and the international reaction that would follow.
Cuba has announced its intentions to begin exploratory drilling in late 2015 — without access to the top-of-the-line equipment that would help reduce the chances of a spill. The U.S. trade embargo prevents that.
Count former Florida Sen. Bob Graham among those who see Grippando’s book as an omen.
Graham is co-chair of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, charged with providing recommendations on how the U.S. can prevent and mitigate any future oil disaster.
Now, Graham is teaming with Grippando to spread the word of the real-life threat.
Grippando tells his fans to read the BP report for the facts. Graham tells federal lawmakers to read “Black Horizon” for a picture of possible consequences if the U.S. fails to safeguard against a Cuban spill.
Their joint recommendation: Amend the embargo to allow Cuba access to U.S.-made oil drilling safety equipment.
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Under the current embargo, items made with more than 10 percent of their content from the U.S. cannot be sold to Cuba or used to benefit its economy.
Oil-drilling rigs fall under the rule.
It applies regardless of where in the world the equipment owner is from.
The U.S. has the best oil-drilling technology in the world, and other countries honor the embargo to avoid falling from favor with a major trading partner.
Graham says keep the embargo but make an exception — now, with signals from Cuba that drilling begins in 19 months.
“The initial exploratory drill is most susceptible to accidents,” said Graham, a Democrat and former Florida governor. “BP was an exploratory drill. Is Cuba in a position to do that inherently dangerous process with the equipment available to them under the status quo? We think the answer is no.”
Whether such a change to the 50-year-old embargo requires an act of Congress or merely a presidential order is under discussion by the Obama administration, Graham said.
Dan Whittle of the New York-based nonprofit environmental advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund says: “Anyone from the administration I’ve run into thinks this needs to get done. The only question now is how to do it.”
Graham’s involvement is an encouraging sign for Al Fox of Tampa, who has worked to encourage normalization of relations with Cuba through his Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation.
“I have been saying what the senator is saying for 15 years — we need to work with Cuba when it is in the best interests of our environment,” Fox said. “But sometimes it’s not the message but the messenger. Bob Graham is a strong messenger.”
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In January, Graham traveled to Cuba to discuss the island nation’s desire to drill. He learned from Cuban officials then of their intent to begin exploration next year.
Recent oil exploration on Cuba’s northern shore, led by Spain’s Repsol oil company, came up dry.
“Cuba is convinced that to find oil they have to go into deeper water than they previously had,” said Whittle, who accompanied Graham on the Cuba trip. “When they told us that, our ears perked up. The deeper you go, the riskier it gets.”
Graham said: “The BP spill was at a depth of 5,000 feet. It would be about that level or more in Cuba.”
Graham insists the intent of the trade embargo would remain intact if the exception is made.
“This has nothing to do with helping Cuba to drill for oil,” he said. “It’s about protecting Florida.”
Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, disagrees, calling the argument propaganda.
Like many embargo hardliners, Claver-Carone and his organization — a Washington D.C. lobbying group promoting democracy in Cuba — wants to prevent Cuba from finding oil out of concern it would strengthen its economy and solidify a government he calls oppressive.
Only one known rig in the world can drill in Cuba’s deep waters under the current U.S. embargo, Claver-Carone said — the Italian-owned Scarabeo 9, under contract in Angola through July 2016.
Repsol used this rig in its earlier Cuba exploration.
“Senator Graham is basing his entire rationale on what Castro officials told him, rather than on the indisputable evidence that any further Cuban off-shore drilling is commercially and logistically unfeasible,” Claver-Carone said.
The only way Cuba could drill for oil in the near future would be to create the exception Graham seeks in the U.S. embargo, opening the door to more rigs, Claver-Carone said.
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Another consideration in the debate is that there may be rigs like the Scarabeo 9 in place or under construction, unknown to much of the global oil industry, said Jose Piņon, former president of Amoco Oil Latin America and current interim director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy.
A rig that performs deep drilling in Cuba could also be cobbled together for the job from outdated parts, Piņon said.
“Who knows how safe they would be,” he said.
The Environmental Defense Fund’s Whittle, who works with Cuban environmental authorities on maintaining the nation’s marine and coastal ecosystems, said he’s confident Cuba will find a way to drill in 2015 “come hell or high water.”
“They are not going to allow the U.S. to dictate if they can drill for oil,” Whittle said. “If they are going to drill, it is important they use the most modern and safest equipment.”
Piņon said embargo hardliners are being selfish.
“A spill in Cuban waters would not just hurt Florida, but also parts of Mexico, Jamaica and the Bahamas,” he said. “We are putting our politics about the safety of all those countries. How is that right?”
Cuba cannot afford the costs of exploring for oil, so it leases blocks of its ocean floor through partnerships.
When Graham visited, Cuba had oil company partners from Spain, Norway, India, Venezuela, Vietnam, Malaysia, Canada, China, Angola and Brazil.
Angola and Brazil have the most experience at deep drilling.
Since his visit, Russia has joined the list, complicating the debate further with ongoing international condemnation of Russia for its intervention in neighboring Ukraine.
“One concern about Russia is it has very little deep-water experience,” Graham said.
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Another concern, said Robert Muse, a New York-based international attorney who specializes in the Cuban embargo, should be ensuring that Cuba’s drilling partners are willing to work with the U.S. on compensation in the event of a spill that reaches its territorial waters.
By some estimates, that could happen within a week of a spill.
BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill happened in U.S. waters and BP has a U.S. subsidiary, subjecting the company to U.S. jurisdiction, Muse said.
Otherwise, international conventions on trans-national pollution would guide any response to a spill.
“Given the contentious and uncertain nature of international conventions, it is probably best to avoid the problem from the outset,” Muse said. “If experts think that means, ‘Let Cuba have access to better equipment,’ do it.”
There is no guarantee that Cuba or a partner would pay compensation, even if threatened with economic sanctions, Muse said.
Both Cuba and Russia already are subject to economic sanctions levied by the U.S.
Author Grippando features Russia in the plot of his fictional “Black Horizon.”
Russia is Cuba’s oil partner during the spill, and an international legal battle ensues when the U.S. demands and is denied compensation.
“Considering the current international situation involving the U.S. and Russia, if there was a spill there could very well be difficulties,” said Grippando, who penned the storyline well before Russia partnered with Cuba.
“I hope naming Russia as the partner is where my predictions end.”
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Part of Grippando’s story is already outdated. He wrote about the difficulty in containing the spill because of the cold relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
His book was released in March, the month an agreement took effect among Caribbean coastal nations on a joint response to any oil spill in their waters.
The agreement, known as the Wider Caribbean Region Multilateral Technical Operating Procedures for Offshore Oil Pollution Response, was written jointly by the U.S., Cuba, Mexico, Jamaica and the Bahamas.
The 60-page document pushes the embargo aside and suggests how the five nations should cooperate.
The agreement, Graham said, spells out the right way to react in a spill.
But to prevent a spill, he said, the U.S. should take a proactive approach and amend the embargo.
Lee Hunt, former president of the Houston-based International Association of Drilling Contractors, said he is confident Cuba has the knowledge and desire to drill safely for oil.
It means little, though, without the equipment to do the work properly, Hunt said.
“What good is it to be trained in laser surgery if all you are given to operate with is a knife?” he said. “Cuba needs access the necessary technology to drill safely.”