By Craig Pittman, Times Staff Writer
Posted: Dec 20, 2011 11:01 AM
As Cuba prepares to begin allowing a Spanish company to drill for oil 12
miles north of Havana next year, U.S. Coast Guard officials say they
have learned from the mistakes made during the Deepwater Horizon
disaster and will be prepared for the worst should a spill happen so
close to the Florida Keys.
"We will attack it quickly, aggressively and as far from our shores as
we can," Rear Adm. William Baumgartner told reporters during a news
Attacking an offshore spill from Cuba would include spraying dispersants
such as Corexit on any oil slick, to break it up and make it degrade
more quickly, Baumgartner said.
"We will use every tool at our disposal," said the admiral, who commands
the Seventh Coast Guard District, headquartered in Miami. "Aerial
dispersants are going to be an effective tool. Undispersed oil is more
damaging to natural resources than dispersed oil."
The use of Corexit during last year's Deepwater Horizon cleanup proved
to be controversial, especially after scientists from the University of
South Florida and other institutions reported finding underwater plumes
of dissolved oil droplets that they feared would affect marine life.
Environmental activists are already questioning whether using such
dispersants to break up the oil would be a good idea so close to such
sensitive areas as the Dry Tortugas National Park, the Florida Keys
National Marine Sanctuary, the National Key Deer Refuge and John
Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
"Just because it disappears doesn't mean it's not there," said Jonathan
Ullman of the Sierra Club's South Florida office.
Baumgartner said his goal is not to protect Florida tourist-attracting
beaches so much as it is to protect natural areas that are important to
marine life, particularly coral reefs, mangroves and sea grass beds.
He said he expects the currents that flow through and near the Keys —-
the gulf's Loop Current, the Florida Current and the Gulfstream —- will
help buffer Florida from contact with most of any oil that might be
spilled in Cuban waters. But he conceded that eddies are likely to break
off and carry some of the oil close enough to taint the shore.
That's why he wants to attack it before it ever arrives. In addition to
dispersants, Baumgartner said he would use skimmer boats, booms and
controlled burns to stop the spill. However, a report on the Deepwater
Horizon cleanup found that those tools did little to stop BP's spill,
with only 5 percent of the oil burned, and a mere 3 percent skimmed off
Cuba has agreed to let a Spanish company, Repsol, drill exploratory
wells off its shores. Repsol's safety record is spotty. In February
2008, its operation in Ecuador experienced a crude oil spill near the
Yasuni National Park in a rainforest area. In February 2009, another oil
spill occurred in Ecuador's Amazon region after a rupture in a pipeline.
Repsol is bringing in an Italian-owned, Chinese-made drilling rig to
drill the wells. U.S. officials are scheduled to inspect the rig when it
reaches Trinidad and Tobago next week, Baumgartner said. Then it would
head for Cuba and get to work drilling in January.
Currently Cuba gets its oil from Venezuela and relies on sugar, nickel
mining and tourism for its economic wellbeing. But sugar production has
fallen off, and the price of nickel worldwide has fallen. Meanwhile its
tourism industry has been sputtering —- so now the Cubans are ready to
consider drilling for oil.
The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated Cuba's offshore fields hold 4.6
billion barrels of oil and 9.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and
said the area has "significant potential.'' The first block Repsol is
expected to explore lies under 5,600 feet of water — 600 feet deeper
than where BP's Deepwater Horizon well exploded in April 2010.
Baumgartner and Capt. John Slaughter, his head of planning, said the
main lesson they learned from Deepwater Horizon was to do a better job
of coordinating with state and county emergency officials, who
complained repeatedly about being ignored during last year's cleanup.
The admiral said he has personally briefed Gov. Rick Scott and talked
with state and county officials about his contingency plans for any
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com
[Last modified: Dec 20, 2011 12:06 PM]