February 4, 2011
Jorge Piñon, Miami Herald
On June 3, 1979, Pemex's exploratory oil well Ixtoc I in Mexico's Bay of Campeche suffered a blowout resulting in what was at the time one of the largest oil spills in history.
For nearly 10 months the Ixtoc I spilled over three million barrels of oil, which extended over an 1,100-square-mile area in the Gulf of Mexico affecting 170 miles of South Texas coastlines.
As a result of this terrible accident the United States and Mexico signed in 1980 an agreement of cooperation (1980 MEXUS Plan) which sets protocols to follow in case on an oil spill which would pose a threat to the waters of both countries.
The MEXUS agreement addresses a bilateral response plan which includes the creation of a joint coordination and response team, incident notification and communications, customs and immigration procedures in order to streamline the transfer of equipment and personnel, and regular scheduled exercises and meetings.
A similar environmental agreement exists between the United States and Canada; the 1986 Canada-United States Joint Marine Pollution Contingency Plan, covering the shared maritime borders along the Great Lakes, Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and the Beaufort Sea.
Today, the Deepwater Horizon incident and the resulting catastrophic oil spill demonstrates the urgency in developing a similar policy of environmental cooperation between the United States, The Bahamas and Cuba; as these two latter countries embark this year in developing their respective deepwater hydrocarbon resources within their 200 miles maritime Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ).
The 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of their natural resources within 200 nautical miles from their territorial waters; giving the United States and its neighbors; Canada, Mexico, Russia, The Bahamas, and Cuba the right to develop their hydrocarbon resources within their EEZ.
As Cuba and The Bahamas develop their deepwater oil and natural gas potential, the consequences from an accidental oil spill demands proactive joint planning by all three countries in order to minimize or avoid such a disaster in a spirit of cooperation and not confrontation in order to protect our fragile shared marine environment.
U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota recently introduced House bill HR372, which attempts to coerce foreign oil companies that explore in Cuban waters by blocking them from drilling in U.S. territorial waters. This approach is counterproductive and affects American oil companies' overseas ventures in countries such as Brazil, Angola, Vietnam, and Russia; and as a result jeopardizes U.S. international energy security interests.
Such an action would also impact domestic national energy policy as foreign oil companies are today the operators and or interest holders in about a quarter of the United States outer continental shelf Gulf of Mexico active and pending oil and natural gas leases awarded by the Department of Interior.
A retaliatory strategy does not accomplish the objective of prudent environmental stewardship. We should be responsible and pragmatic in order to respond effectively to an oil-related marine accident, by providing international oil companies operating in Cuba and The Bahamas immediate access to United States' oil services and equipment companies that can provide the near-instant technology and know-how that will be needed to limit and halt damage to the marine environment.
The Deepwater Horizon incident experience taught the United States very important hands-on lessons on how to manage such a catastrophe, lessons which would benefit us in the future by sharing them with neighbors.
Obviously, the establishment of working relations between the U.S., Cuba, and The Bahamas in marine environmental protection would assist enormously in the contingency planning and cooperation necessary to an early and truly effective response to an oil spill.
Jorge R. Piñon is a visiting research fellow with Florida International University, and former president of Amoco Oil Latin America.