By Joanne Liou, associate editor
Deepwater E&P is ramping up worldwide, and the Caribbean is following suit. Exploration plans for the region, which may be separated from the US Gulf in terms of maritime boundaries but is ultimately tied to the US through Gulf currents, requires continued regionwide cooperation to ensure a spill response plan is in place, Dr Lee Hunt, IADC president emeritus and president of Lee Hunt LLC, explained at the 2013 IADC Environmental Conference in New York City on 9 April. He noted that International Maritime Organization (IMO) workshops, in which IADC played a central role, have improved interactions between Cuba and the US in terms of spill preparedness.
In fact, Dr Hunt said, Cuba boasts the highest preparedness level for Caribbean countries, followed by Trinidad and Tobago and then by the Bahamas. “The challenge now is to move beyond that and into the greater Caribbean,” Dr Hunt said, to come together and commit to the kinds of cooperatives and consortia so that resources from the private sector are there to respond to an event that is capable of being managed and controlled by multinational jurisdictions.
Compared with response for surface spills, which are well advanced, he explained that subsea spill response presented the biggest gap. “What the industry and the governments were unprepared for and lacking was dealing with the third dimension – the need for source control,” going beyond the surface to address source containment and control, he said.
After the Macondo incident, IADC helped bring to the attention of the US government that a significant spill in Cuba, in particular, has high potential to affect the US coast due to currents in the Gulf. “There was a need to get the governments together to formalize protocols for how to respond to oil spills,” Dr Hunt stated. This included coordinating moving aircraft across multiple jurisdictions, coordinating vessel traffic and bringing in specialty workers under various immigration and visa circumstances.
One barrier to collaboration was that US law and policy prohibit bilateral communication between the two countries. “What we have politically is a situation that one of the areas of great risk to the US and its ecological and economic interest is in Cuba. Because of the half-century-long political embargo, they are denied access to some of the best and most available equipment to address the problem,” Dr Hunt said.
The US and the drilling industry have been able to work around politics, however, by communicating with Cuba with the help of multinational conventions, such as the Cartagena Convention. The Cartagena Convention, to which Cuba is certified, was adopted in 1983 and provides an umbrella agreement for the protection and development of the marine environment in the wider Caribbean region. “It became possible for Cubans, Mexicans, Americans and Bahamians to get together with delegates from other countries and discuss these issues,” Dr Hunt said. The IMO then was able to convene under the Cartagena Convention via a series of workshops, with participants from the US, Cuba, Bahamas and Mexico.
IADC has been central to promoting the meetings, during which a finalized document for governmental protocol for handling spill response, including source control, is being developed and will be available soon, Dr Hunt stated. In 2011, IADC took the first oil industry delegation from the US into Cuba, which included Brian Petty, IADC executive vice president – government and regulatory affairs; Steve Kropla, IADC group vice president – operational integrity; and Alan Spackman, IADC vice president – offshore division. “We met with many officials and established the concept of One Gulf to look at mutual multilateral cooperation,” Dr Hunt said.
For the Cubans, One Gulf was seen as serving a common interest to protect people and the environment, addressing a common challenge to prevent accidents and providing a common solution, which was the IMO workshop, Dr Hunt explained.
“In the case of Cuba, there were some companies who got special licenses from the US government to bid their services to the foreign operators, such as REPSOL and Petronas, to take their equipment into Cuban exclusive economic zones (EEZ) to respond to deepwwater spills,” Dr Hunt said. Under current agreements between the US and Cuba, at the invitation of the Cuban government, the US Coast Guard is licensed to take command of any and all resources needed to respond to an oil spill in the Cuban EEZ, “as long as those resources report to the incident commander of the US Coast Guard,” Dr Hunt said. Helix Energy Solutions Group and Wild Well Control have licenses to provide equipment at the wellhead and capping installation, while other groups, including Clean Caribbean, a spill response and preparedness cooperative, have licenses to operate in Cuba.
However, there are still gaps that prohibit some resources, such as those pooled under industry groups, from being used in Cuba. “There are two consortia in US – Helix Well Containment Group and Marine Well Containment Company, but they’re mandated only for the Gulf of Mexico and not licensed to work beyond the borders of the US,” Dr Hunt said. For coastal protection as well, “a lot of technology we’ve seen is not available for either sale or distribution or application.”
As activity picks up in the wider Caribbean region, Dr Hunt stressed the importance of continued cooperation. “We learned from Macondo that we have a tremendous commitment as industry to plan ahead and have the best available resources,” he stated. “One Gulf is all about currents, all about water flow, and it’s all about being prepared.”