Oil Spill Diplomacy: The Response from the Americas
Booming operations continue in the Gulf of Mexico as part of the cleanup effort from the BP oil spill.
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has undoubtedly had the greatest impact on the United States. But the disaster has spurred assistance from a number of countries in the Western Hemisphere, even as the oil threatens some nearby Latin American and Caribbean shores.
Canada, Mexico, and Brazil offered help or expertise shortly after the Deep Water Horizon oil rig sank to the ocean floor on April 20.
In the nine weeks since, estimates place the amount of crude pouring into the Gulf at more than 113 million gallons, with models now indicating the oil could possibly reach the Mexican coast by December and Cuba, the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands soon after.
Although the Obama administration initially hesitated to request international assistance, Washington accepted on June 14 Canada’s offer of 1.86 miles of much-needed boom—the foam-lined rope used to cordon off large swaths of water contaminated with oil.
Similarly, Washington accepted Mexico’s offer of two vessels equipped for oil skimming and 2.6 miles of boom last week. But, to put the need in context, 1,277 miles of boom have been used thus far in Gulf cleanup efforts and nearly 540 miles remain available.
The U.S. Coast Guard also reports that it has enlisted the aid of more than 400 skimming vessels to help in the operation. Brazil’s assistance in the crisis has been in the form of technical expertise, sourced directly through BP with the assistance of the U.S. State Department.
Mexico, in particular, has a vested interest in seeing the oil slick contained. The government predicted oil could arrive at its shores come December and is planning for the possibility of a lawsuit against British Petroleum for environmental damages.
But Mexico may feel effects much sooner: The environmental protection agency of the state of Tamaulipas says traces of crude have been found on the shores there and the agency is investigating whether that crude comes from the spill. With cruise lines already diverting ships out of the oil’s path, destinations such as Cancun and Veracruz could see a drop in revenues should the oil reach the beaches of the Yucatan Peninsula or Bay of Campeche.
The Yucatan, forced to rebuild after Hurricane Wilma as recently as 2005, remains an area that has felt limited impact from the drug violence affecting other parts of the country.
Mexico also has lessons to teach based on its own experiences, having dealt with the Ixtoc 1 accident in July 1979, when an estimated 140 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the southern Gulf of Mexico over a period of roughly nine months before state-owned firm Pemex capped the leaking well in the Bay of Campeche. To date the Ixtoc 1 oil spill is the third largest oil spill in history.
The BP oil spill also has spurred an unexpected round of talks between the United States and Cuba. U.S. State Department officials have contacted Cuban officials to share information that would help Havana better prepare for the oil slick reaching its coast.
Although not acknowledged as official diplomatic relations, cooperation between the United States and Cuba is common on environmental issues such as hurricanes and earthquakes, as outlined by the 1983 UN Cartagena Convention.
As The Christian Science Monitor reports, the oil spill has placed pressure on the Obama administration to make petroleum safety equipment, resources and technology exempt from the U.S embargo on Cuba.
Before the oil spill in the Gulf, Cuba had announced plans to develop offshore deposits located within its territorial waters.
A May report by the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. recommends that Obama issue an executive order to modify the embargo so that U.S. companies can more easily respond in the event of any future oil spill in Cuban waters that may threaten the U.S. mainland.
With oil from the spill last reported just 100 miles northwest of Cuba, the disaster creates a path for Washington and Havana to communicate, even as Havana accepts teams from Venezuela to help it deal with the crisis. Oil, as well as politics as it seems, can sometimes make strange bedfellows.
By: Levi J. Jordan
Source: AS/COA Online