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Like oil and water in the gulf

As Cuba explores for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. embargo could hurt both countries. Cooperation and engagement, however, could benefit American firms and protect the environment.

March 14, 2011|By Sarah Stephens

Cuba and its foreign partners will begin exploring for oil this year in the Gulf of Mexico. Drilling will take place as close as 50 miles from Florida and in sites deeper than BP's Macondo well, the source of last year's disaster. About 5 billion barrels of oil and 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lie beneath the gulf in land belonging to Cuba, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

If Cuba finds oil in commercially viable amounts, this would be transformative. Revenue from natural resources has the potential to provide long-sought stability for its economy and is likely to significantly alter Cuba's relations with Venezuela, Asia and other leading energy-producing and consuming nations. Discoveries of commercially viable resources would also have an enormous effect on the gulf environment shared by Cuba and the United States.

Thanks to the U.S. embargo against Cuba — a remnant of the Cold War — the risks to the United States begin the moment the first drill bit pierces the seabed. And we are utterly unprepared.

Not only does the embargo prohibit U.S. firms from joining Cuba in any efforts to extract its offshore resources, thus giving the competitive advantage to foreign firms, but it also denies Cuba access to U.S. equipment for drilling and environmental protection — an especially troubling policy considering the potential for a spill. The embargo also compels Cuba's foreign partners to go through contortions, such as ordering a drilling rig built in China and shipping it nearly 10,000 miles to Cuban waters, to avoid violating U.S. law.

Most important, the failed policy of isolating Cuba has the U.S. paralyzed: It stops us from engaging Cuba in meaningful environmental cooperation and prevents us from addressing in advance the threat of potential spills caused by hurricanes or technological failures, which could put our waters, fisheries and beaches at peril.

As Cuba gets ready to drill, the Obama administration has limited options. It could do nothing. It could try to stop Cuba from developing its oil and natural gas, an alternative most likely to fail in an energy-hungry world. Or it could use its executive authority to cooperate with Cuba, despite the embargo, to ensure that drilling in the gulf protects our mutual interests.

Since the 1990s, Cuba has showed a serious commitment to the environment, building an array of environmental policies, many based on U.S. and Spanish law. But it has no experience responding to major spills. And, like the U.S., Cuba has to balance its economic and environmental interests, and the environmental side will not always prevail.

Against this backdrop, cooperation and engagement is the right approach, and there is already precedent for it.

During the BP spill, Cuba permitted a vessel from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to look for damage in Cuban waters. The Obama administration declared its willingness to provide limited licenses for U.S. firms to respond to the BP spill, and to others in the future that threaten Cuba. It also provided visas for Cuban scientists to attend an important environmental conference in Florida. But these modest measures are not sufficient.

Members of Congress from Florida have introduced bills to impose sanctions on foreign oil companies and U.S. firms that help Cuba drill for oil, and to punish those foreign firms by denying them the right to drill in U.S. waters. These proposals will not stop Cuba from drilling; if enacted, Cuba's partners will disregard them, and they will make cooperation to protect our mutual coastal environment even more difficult.

Energy policy and environmental protection are classic examples of how the embargo is an abiding threat to U.S. interests. It should no longer be acceptable to base U.S. foreign policy on the illusion that sanctions will cause Cuba's government to collapse — or stop Cuba from developing its oil resources. Nor should this policy or the political dynamic that sustains it prevent the U.S. from addressing both the challenges and benefits of Cuba finding meaningful amounts of oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Obama administration should use its executive authority to guarantee that firms with the best equipment and greatest expertise are licensed in advance to fight the effects of any oil spills. The Treasury Department, which enforces Cuba sanctions, should make clear to the private sector that efforts to protect drilling safety will not be met with adverse regulatory actions. The U.S. government should commit to vigorous information-sharing with Cuba, and open direct negotiations with the Cuban government for environmental agreements modeled on cooperation that exists with our Canadian and Mexican neighbors.

Most of all, it should replace a policy predicated on Cuba failing with a diplomatic approach that recognizes Cuba's sovereignty. Only then will our nation be able to respond effectively to what could become a new chapter in Cuba's history, and ours.

Sarah Stephens is executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, an independent organization focused on U.S.-Cuba relations and U.S. relations with Latin America.

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