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Cuba embargo could threaten oil-drilling safety, expert says

The 50-year-old U.S. embargo of Cuba is getting in the way of safety when it comes to deepwater drilling in Cuban waters, an expert on the communist country’s offshore drilling activity said Thursday.

Lee Hunt, the former president of the International Association of Drilling Contractors, warned that Cold War-era economic sanctions threaten not only Florida’s economy and environment but that of Cuba, too, in the event of a major disaster on the scale of 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The worst-case scenario is "state-sponsored chaos at a disaster site," Hunt said during an event sponsored by the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank that advocates for a foreign policy based on human rights.

The U.S. Coast Guard has extensive response plans, as does the state of Florida. But Hunt said he would give prevention efforts an "F" grade. He likened the work to stocking body bags for a plane crash – but not training pilots to fly safely or to maintain aircraft properly.

"We’re getting ready for what will inevitably happen if we don’t take the right proactive steps," Hunt said.

His warning and that of other experts came as the Spanish oil company Repsol is about to tap an offshore reservoir beneath 5,600 feet of seawater and about 14,000 feet of rock. The company, the first of many set to drill for oil off Cuba’s coast, is working just 77 nautical miles from Key West.

Workers are about a week from completing their drilling and are beginning the technically demanding phase of capping the well and preparing it for possible production, the panelists at the event said.

Former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief William Reilly, who along with former Florida Sen. Bob Graham co-chaired the presidential commission that examined BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill, said that in his most recent visit to Cuba he was reassured that Repsol was moving slowly in Cuban waters to avoid any surprises. Dan Whittle of the Environmental Defense Fund said that in his visits to Cuba, well-thumbed copies of the commission’s report looked as though they were "read even more in Havana than here."

Reilly also noted that Cuban officials are regular readers of daily bulletins from U.S. agencies on U.S. oil drilling regulations. He said he urged them to follow Mexican offshore guidelines – which he said are based on U.S. rules.

"Nobody is predicting a catastrophe in association with anything that the Cubans are overseeing," Reilly said. "In every way, the Cuban approach to this is responsible, careful and attentive to the risks that they know they’re undertaking."

"Nevertheless, should there be a need for a response . . . the United States government has not interpreted its sanctions policy in a way that would clearly make available in advance the kind of technologies that would be required," Reilly said.

Several of the experts said Thursday they are confident that the Treasury Department could react quickly in an emergency to allow U.S. oil response teams to get emergency permits to do business with the Cuban government.

The department, which oversees the embargo, has authorized an American firm, Helix Energy Solutions, to handle spill response for Repsol. It’s a red-tape ordeal that company officials said they’ll have to repeat when working with the other companies that have contracted to use the same rig next in Cuban waters.

The oil rig was built in China and Singapore, is owned by an Italian company and flagged in the Bahamas. Because of the embargo, it was 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 will be leased next by a rotation of state-owned foreign oil companies also exploring in Cuban waters.

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