Cuba oil drilling shifts west; that could raise risk for South Florida
- Submitted by: lena campos
- 05 / 07 / 2012
A giant floating rig hunting for oil north of Cuba is about to move farther west to dig an exploratory well even closer to the Gulf Stream that rushes along the South Florida coast.
The exact location of the new site is a closely guarded secret, but sources familiar with drilling operations say it will be off the northwest coast of Cuba a little more than 100 miles from Key West. That's farther from Florida than the current drilling site north of Havana but closer to the Gulf Stream, which would carry a potential oil slick toward the Keys and South Florida's beachfront.
Oil drilling this close to Florida, just two years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, has raised alarms about a potential threat to Florida's delicate environment and $60-billion tourism industry.
Repsol, the Spanish energy company that is leasing the rig for $500,000 a day, has yet to strike oil after more than three months of trying. But it will keep on digging before turning the rig over to a Malaysian company, Petronas, in late May or June.
Federal scientists have developed computer models – using scenarios based on currents and wind patterns -- to predict where a potential slick would go. The most likely path would run close to shore along the southeast tip of the Florida peninsula, perhaps as far north as Cape Canaveral, before heading into open seas toward the Carolinas.
"If you move the drilling site farther west, there seems to be a slightly higher risk to the Florida Keys and the area south of Miami," said Brad Benggio, a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Oil could come ashore anywhere along the southeast Florida coast, he said, if it is blown by winds from the east or pushed by eddies, which are smaller cross-currents.
Coast Guard officials have prepared an elaborate response plan, which says "trajectory modeling suggests that the oil could reach U.S. waters within two to three days and have potential shoreline impacts within five to seven days."
Officials hope prevailing currents would push any slick rapidly past South Florida without it touching shore. But marine scientists and local officials in South Florida say a giant slick almost certainly would foul parts of the coastline.
Some of the most likely places are around jetties -- rock structures that jut into the ocean from the entrance to inlets near Port Everglades, Hillsboro Beach, Boca Raton, Boynton Beach, Lake Worth and Jupiter. That's where debris or anything floating in the ocean tends to collect.
"Clearly those are choke points. They are the obvious places you would try to control it," said Eric Myers, natural resources administrator in Broward County. "It's difficult to protect beaches themselves along the open ocean. The plan will try to entrap oil in the vicinity of the inlets to protect the bays and the Intracoastal areas."
"That's where you've got your mangrove areas and juvenile fish habitat," Myers said. "Floating oil would tend to come in close contact and affect those areas as opposed to deeper waters."
If Cuban drilling produces a spill, the Coast Guard plans to skim oil from the ocean surface, burn it or disperse it with chemicals before it reaches land. The ageny also hopes that Cuba, despite the U.S. embargo and bad relations between the two adversaries, would allow Americans to enter Cuban waters to help contain a spill at its source.
Energy experts and environmentalists have been encouraged by a series of recent meetings with officials from Cuba as well as Mexico, Jamaica and the Bahamas to discuss regional contingency plans for responding to a drilling disaster.
U.S. officials downplay these meetings, and no formal agreement has been reached. But those familiar with the meetings say Cuban participants have been cooperative.
"Both sides are taking the matter of protecting their common environment very seriously," said Jorge Pinon, a former oil executive and energy expert at the University of Texas who talks with officials in Washington and Havana.
"Just like ping pong opened the U.S. relationship with China, maybe oil will be one of the catalysts that could open a more friendly and communicative relationship between Cuba and the United States," Pinon said. "It certainly lays the groundwork for future conversations on other topics."
Repsol, Petronas and other energy companies have contracted with Cuba to dig exploratory wells and will share the profits with the Cuban government if they successfully tap reservoirs of oil.
"They'll cap it, cement it and seal it," Pinon said. "And then two or three years from now, they'll begin drilling five, 10 or 12 production wells over that reservoir, and production will come on stream.
"So production is maybe three to five years away."