Russia plunges into Cuban oil exploration
More drilling raises environmental alarms in Florida
By William E. Gibson, Washington Bureau
5:38 p.m. EDT, June 14, 2014
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
“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.”
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Source: Russia plunges into Cuban oil exploration near Florida’s shores
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