U.S., Cuban officials set to meet next month to discuss oil spill cleanup

U.S., Cuban officials set to meet next month to discuss oil spill cleanup

HAVANA, Feb. 23th U.S. and Cuban officials will meet for two days next month in Fort Lauderdale to finalize an agreement to coordinate efforts to prevent and contain oil spills in the Florida Straits and the Gulf of Mexico.

The two countries signed a bilateral agreement last year focusing on spill-cleanup coordination as part of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations that happened in the final years of the Obama administration.

Talks seek to finalize that pact, known as the Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Agreement, according to a State Department spokesman speaking on background.

“State Department officials are meeting Cuban officials to discuss finalizing the draft Joint Contingencies Plan, which will operationalize the U.S-Cuba Oil Spill Agreement,” the spokesman said in an email this week.

The talks are scheduled to begin two days after a March 5-6 conference at Nova Southeastern University expected to be attended by members of academia, the oil industry, the United States government and the environmental community.

“Timely and relevant, the conference is an opportunity to ‘up-the-knowledge curve’ on the latest research on spill trajectory prediction and industry technology in capping and containment, as well as progress on governmental cooperation,” organizer Lee Hunt, an oil drilling consultant and general partner of the Houston, Texas-based Hunt Petty LP, said in a statement.

“As potential changes may be made to offshore exploration areas in the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern U.S. Seaboard,” Hunt said, “the conference issues assume even greater relevance to the environmental community.”

“We set aside two days for the talks in Fort Lauderdale with Cuban authorities immediately after the conference,” the State Department spokesman said.

News of the talks comes as the U.S. Interior Department announced last week the opening of a huge swath of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas exploration.

Specifically, the Interior Department is holding a lease sale for 77.3 million acres offshore Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, starting March 21.

It is the largest lease sale in U.S. history, according to an Interior Department press release.

Offshore leases helped the federal government raise $1 billion more in energy revenues than the previous year, according to the Feb. 16 statement.

Ryan Brown, a spokesman for Sen. Bill Nelson (D), told the Tampa Bay Times that the announcement does not mean there will be more drilling rigs off Florida’s coast. The areas in question already are open to drilling under a lease sale finalized under the Obama administration, Brown told the Times.

The last time there was a major drilling operation near the Keys was in 2012 and 2013, when several international companies used an Italian-owned, Chinese-built semi-submersible rig to look for oil in the Florida Straits between Cuba and Key West.

The exploratory drilling largely came up empty but the Cuban government believes there may be large supplies of oil and gas below the ocean floor in the deep waters of the straits and Gulf of Mexico.

There was concern at the time among American officials, environmentalists and oil-industry professionals that the Cuba embargo would hinder cleanup efforts in the event of a spill because of rules in the embargo against exporting U.S. equipment to Cuba.

Under new Department of Commerce rules implemented under the Obama administration, companies still need a special license to export to Cuba. However, the department “looks favorably” on exports and equipment to Cuba “that contribute to the prevention of pollution of the air, land and sea of the United States and Cuba,” Hunt said this week.