WASHINGTON — As Cuba prepares to embark on a new round of exploratory offshore drilling, U.S. officials are slightly more enlightened about the island nation's plans in the event of a catastrophic oil spill on the scale of last year's Deepwater Horizon explosion.
Several Caribbean countries — including the United States and Cuba — met last week in the Bahamas to talk about response plans. U.S. officials got an opportunity to see the Cuban disaster-response plans; Cuba already has participated in a mock response drill in Trinidad with the Spanish oil company that's doing the first round of drilling. That company, Repsol, also agreed to allow U.S. inspectors from the Interior Department to look at the rig that will be doing the drilling.
Sarah Stephens, the executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, said she was encouraged that Cuban and American officials had met, along with other nations that have an interest in regional oil production.
"There should be a lot more direct conversation and collaboration between the U.S. and Cuba and others about the rig, because it's inevitable," she said.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
U.S. officials say their priority is mitigating any potential threat to the United States and its territorial waters from oil drilling in Cuban waters. They say they've done nothing to facilitate oil drilling in Cuban waters, and that their main goal is to be prepared for the possibility of a spill and how they'd respond to it.
"The United States will continue to engage multilaterally to advance regional collaboration and to ensure responsible stewardship of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea," the State Department said in a statement issued before the meeting in the Bahamas.
Although U.S. officials say they're not actively working to keep Cubans from drilling in their own waters, the Cuba embargo that's been in place since the 1960s may have slowed things down.
Repsol had to find an oil rig made from fewer than 10 percent U.S. components — not an easy task. Although few rigs are made in the United States, many components of them are, including software and blowout preventers.
The rig, which is owned by a subsidiary of the Italian oil company Eni, will be used next by a rotation of state-owned oil companies: Petronas, a Malaysian company, and the Oil and Natural Gas Corp., an Indian company that will be partnering with Russia's Gazprom.
"That rig was custom-built to be sure that it met the embargo limitations," said Jorge Pinon, a former Amoco executive and a visiting research fellow with Florida International University's Latin American and Caribbean Center's Cuban Research Institute. "That's why it's taken so long, over the last three years, for international oil companies to be able to drill in Cuba."
Pinon and other experts in Cuba's drilling and regulatory abilities remain concerned that the U.S. government hasn't spoken with the state-owned oil giants that will be leasing the rig after Repsol to drill in Cuban waters.
"Politics have exceeded common sense in protecting the environment and economy of Florida," Pinon said.
The United States doesn't have the same leverage with the companies next in line, however, Interior Department officials told Congress in October. But because it's a public company and because of its other extensive U.S. interests, Repsol is likely to exercise caution in a prospect less than 100 miles from the Florida coastline.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY