Russia plunges into Cuban oil exploration

More drilling raises environmental alarms in Florida

June 15, 2014|By William E. Gibson, Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Russia has agreed to plunge into the search for oil in deep waters between the shores of Cuba and Florida, renewing fears of a major oil spill and the potential for environmental disaster.

With President Vladimir Putin looking on, Russian companies Rosneft and Zarubezhneft signed an energy agreement with Cuba late last month to explore offshore oil deposits. The agreement also calls for Rosneft to build a base at the Cuban port of Mariel to relay equipment and personnel to offshore rigs, linked by pipelines and a helicopter pad.

The drilling area north of Havana straddles the Gulf Stream, a powerful ocean current that rushes north to the Florida coast. Oceanographers warn that an oil slick caused by a major spill could reach Florida's beaches, reefs and marine sanctuaries in about a week.

"If there's a spill in an area within 50 miles of Key West, the immediate vulnerable land areas are going to be in South Florida," former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham warned in an interview last week. "The largest natural reef in the United States is located right near the area where the drilling would take place.

"If there is an accident, there is zero capability in Cuba today to respond to that accident."

Graham, who served two terms as Florida governor, met with Cuban officials in January and co-chaired a presidential commission on the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He and energy experts said the Russians have little experience with deep-water drilling and that the U.S. embargo of Cuba prohibits the use of American technology to prevent or respond to a spill.

A State Department spokesperson said U.S. officials "have expressed our concerns" to Cuba and its partners, but the United States can do nothing to stop drilling in Cuban waters. While the embargo limits the use of American products, U.S. companies have been licensed to respond in case of a spill.

The agreement reflects Putin's outreach to nations once aligned with the former Soviet Union and re-creates a Russian presence 90 miles from Florida. Cuba, which once relied on Soviet patronage to prop up its economy, is re-establishing close connections with Russia.

U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, a leading critic of the Castro regime, said the growing relationship "has damaged U.S. interests and invited cronies of Putin's oil and security industries to our doorstep."

The energy agreement also stirred concerns about the safety of oil exploration less than 50 miles from Florida in waters more than 5,000 feet deep, where drilling is far more hazardous than on land or in shallow waters.

"Are the Russians going to let U.S. officials inspect their rig?" said Jorge Pinon, a leading energy expert at the University of Texas. "Is the U.S. just going to sit on the sidelines and allow Cuba to drill with a piece of equipment, when we don't know whether it has the latest blowout preventer or the latest technology?"

Zarubezhneft and companies from Spain and Malaysia have searched for oil along Cuba's north coast since 2012. So far, their exploratory wells have not turned up enough oil to be worth extracting. Cuba is negotiating with other companies from Brazil, Canada and Angola to join the hunt for black gold.

By Pinon's estimate, foreign companies have spent more than $700 million over a decade in the futile search for oil between Cuba and Florida. But Cuban officials say seismic testing indicates that as much as 20 billion barrels worth of crude oil lies there — more than enough to meet its needs for 100 years.

Political turmoil in Venezuela, meanwhile, jeopardizes the stream of cheap oil it has been exporting to Cuba.

"The Cubans were very frustrated by the first round of drilling, but there is still a lot of optimism and hope, and a sense of urgency with what's going on in Venezuela," said Dan Whittle of the Environmental Defense Fund, who meets frequently with Cuban officials. "They are determined to move forward with more exploration next year."

Russia, meanwhile, has used energy as a foreign-policy tool while defying international economic sanctions that stemmed from its seizure of Crimea. The outreach includes a major energy accord with China.

When the Cuban agreement was signed, Putin noted that many of the world's oil deposits are running dry. "Therefore, we have to move to new areas, often hard to access ... and develop reserves that were traditionally considered economically less efficient and hard to reach."

Graham and environmentalists say the pressure to drill threatens Florida's delicate ecosystem, its beaches, its endangered species and its tourism industry.

The nightmare scenario inspired best-selling author James Grippando, a lawyer in Fort Lauderdale, to write a recently published novel, "Black Horizon," depicting horrors created by a major spill near Cuba that fouls the Everglades and the coastline.

"It all takes place in eight days," Grippando said. "According to the experts I talked to, that's essentially the window of opportunity we have to respond to a spill. The oil would reach the U.S. coastline within six to 10 days." or 202-824-8256202-824-8256

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