Coast Guard preparing for Cuba oil spills

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 30, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The new U.S. Coast Guard commander for the southeastern United States said Thursday that his agency is looking "very seriously'' at Cuba's plans to drill for oil and reviewing contingency plans in the event of a spill that could reach the Florida coast.

"We are actively looking at all the different implications and scenarios to make sure our plans are revised and up to date,'' Rear Adm. William D. Baumgartner told editors at the Miami Herald. He said other agencies also are reviewing their plans.

The Spanish oil giant Repsol has leased several undersea blocks from the Cuban government and is expected to begin drilling next year with a rig, the Scarabeo 9, that is being built in China in part to avoid conflicts with the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.

The first block Repsol is expected to explore lies under 5,600 feet of water — 600 feet deeper than the water where BP's Deepwater Horizon well exploded in April — and about 55 miles south of Florida's Marquesas Key.

Baumgartner acknowledged that the United States has no emergency response agreement with Cuba for oil spills. The U.S. signed such an agreement with Mexico in 1980.

"We have longstanding agreements with Mexico about how we would manage incidents and the . . . plan is routinely monitored,'' Baumgartner said. "There is not a bilateral U.S.-Cuba agreement on oil spills right now.''

While some oil industry analysts worry that Cuba would be ill prepared for an oil spill, Baumgartner noted that Repsol would be responsible for cleaning up any spill that entered U.S. waters and that the Coast Guard would manage any cleanup in U.S. waters.

"There are international agreements that discuss the notification and information sharing that has to happen between countries,'' he said.

In addition, Repsol's drilling rig reportedly will be outfitted with a blowout preventer manufactured in the United States.

Baumgartner noted that even without an agreement, the United States shared information with Cuba during the Deepwater Horizon spill over the summer "so that they knew what was going on.''

The State Department said last summer and repeated this week that U.S. oil spill cleanup service companies could be licensed through the Treasury Department to provide oil spill prevention support to companies working in Cuba.

Baumgartner said the U.S. government is also looking to see if it needs to revise oil spill tracking computer models that were developed in 2004 when Repsol last drilled exploratory wells off the Cuban coast.

"We have area contingency plans about how we would deal with oil that are pretty much well established,'' he said. "What we would look at here is what would we need to change or update, what are some other things we might need to be aware of with this particular scenario.

"The primary responsibility lies with Repsol to address this, but we're going to look to be prepared to do whatever we need to do,'' he said.

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