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U.S. and Cuba on verge of historic oil spill accord

Experts: U.S. and Cuba on verge of historic oil spill accord
By Paul Guzzo, Times Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 10, 2016 7:00pm

Vice Joe Biden will speak at the of Tampa today.
For more than 50 years, the broken political relationship between the
United States and Cuba kept them from working together to protect the
Gulf of Mexico from an oil spill.

That could be the next thing to change in this new age of normalized
relations: Experts say the United States and Cuba are negotiating an
agreement that would allow them to cooperate if an oil spill were to
threaten either nation.

Such an agreement would usher in the unthinkable: joint military
exercises between the Coast Guard and Navy with their Cuban counterparts
to practice responding to a massive spill.

An accord would also be critical to protecting the Florida coastline
because Cuba could allow offshore drilling in 18 months. An oil spill in
Cuban waters could reach the Florida Keys in less than a week.

“Ecosystems and marine life don’t know where a nation’s boundaries are,”
said Dan Whittle, director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s marine
and coastal conservation projects in Cuba. “What happens in Cuban waters
affects us.”

The agreement would be another big step forward in the U.S.-Cuban
relationship since President Barack Obama normalized diplomatic
relations in 2014.

The State Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Whittle said a U.S.-approved draft has been sent to Havana for
endorsement. He said his Cuban colleagues recently told him “something
big is in the works.”

Jorge Pinon, director of the Latin America and Caribbean Energy Program
at the University of Texas, also learned that officials in Havana are
reviewing a draft. He expects U.S. officials will soon announce an oil
spill agreement because of recent White House events.

Last week, Vice President Joe Biden chaired the U.S.-Caribbean-Central
American Energy Summit that gathered those regions’ heads of government
and energy ministers. Although Cuba was not represented, one of the
summit’s purposes was to promote environmental safety.

Biden will also be in Tampa today to deliver a speech at the University
of Tampa on his vision for “U.S. policy in the Western Hemisphere.”

Still, that doesn’t mean Cuban officials are close to approving an
agreement. Pinon and Whittle said Cuba is known to take its time on
political decisions. Neither would be surprised if the announcement is
delayed for months.

But both are confident Cuba will eventually sign the agreement.

“A bilateral agreement would allow proper advanced planning, preparation
and training to ensure that the response is credible and capable of
containing the spill,” said Lee Hunt, oil drilling consultant and former
president of the International Association of Drilling Contractors in
Houston, which trains engineers on safety.

“The travesty, of course, is that it took years for this to happen,”
said Albert Fox, founder of Tampa’s Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy
Foundation, who has helped Hunt visit Cuba to meet with leaders there.
“This agreement is for the betterment of both countries.”

Hunt believes that a U.S.-Cuban oil spill response protocol would be
similar to the agreement that the United States and Mexico forged in
1980 known as MEXUS.

That agreements spells out how U.S. and Mexican personnel would work
together to deal with an oil spill, how they would handle air and sea
traffic control, conduct joint military exercises and deploy military

The timing is right for the United States to reach a deal on handling
oil spills because Cuba could finally be on the verge of tapping the 20
billion barrels of oil that are believed to lie beneath that nation’s
deep waters.

Cuba’s past deep water explorations, most recently one led by ’s
Repsol in 2012, have come up dry. But Cuba is now in a partnership with
Angola’s state-run petroleum production company, Sonangol. Hunt said
Cuba seems determined to drill in the next 18 months and Sonangol is
rumored to have hired a consultant for the venture.

Cuba, said Hunt, has been trained on safe oil drilling procedures. But
as the BP oil spill proved, no nation is immune from an offshore
drilling incident. The 2010 oil rig explosion killed 11 and released
millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

To prevent another catastrophe, Hunt said Cuba needs access to the best
oil spill cleanup resources in the world. That means working with the U.S.

“If our government fails to heed the lesson of BP and prepare for the
worst,” said Hunt, “an oil spill disaster in the Florida Straits would
become the equivalent of this . . . administration’s Katrina.”

Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

Source: Experts: U.S. and Cuba on verge of historic oil spill accord |
Tampa Bay Times –

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