With an oil-drilling rig on its way to Cuban waters from Singapore, U.S. officials are trying to piece together a strategy for what to do should a spill from the exploratory well threaten the Florida coastline.
The job is complicated by diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Cuba and the domestic politics of the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
"They're proceeding cautiously, and in my opinion, a bit too cautiously," said Daniel Whittle, senior attorney and Cuba Program director at the Environmental Defense Fund.
The clock is ticking: Spanish oil giant Repsol could begin drilling in late December or early January at a spot along the northern shore of Cuba about 90 miles from Key West. From there, the Gulf Stream could pick up any oil spill and carry it perilously close or even into mangrove islands and onto beaches in the Florida Keys, South Florida and up the U.S. eastern coastline.
The Interior Department and U.S. Coast Guard have made the rounds of House and Senate committees in the past few weeks to reassure lawmakers that they are on the job -- even without Cuba at the table.
In talks with U.S. officials since February, Repsol has pledged that it will adhere to U.S. drilling regulations while working in Cuba. It has agreed to allow the U.S. to inspect the rig before it enters Cuban waters, the company and U.S. officials say.
U.S. regulators, though, have no enforcement power and the inspections will not be as complete as they would be if conducted at the drilling site, Michael Bromwich, director of the Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, recently told a House subcommittee.
Bromwich said Repsol has an incentive to cooperate with U.S. authorities to protect its extensive oil interests in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
Company spokesman Kristian Rix said Repsol was just being a "responsible operator."
U.S. Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, is among a contingent of South Florida lawmakers who say the Obama administration's work with Repsol is inconsistent with U.S. policy toward Cuba.
The lawmakers sent a letter to Obama asking that the Commerce Department conduct its own inspection of the rig to be sure it complies with U.S. trade laws.
The letter also requests "clarity" about how the U.S. is applying embargo rules that prohibit the rig from having more than 10 percent U.S. parts.
The rig getting all the attention, the new Scarabeo 9, was built in China for an estimated $750 million for Italian company Saipem, said Lee Hunt, president of the International Association of Drilling Contractors.
A half-dozen similar rigs already are working in the field and have a good safety record, Hunt noted.
Still, the Deepwater Horizon spill in the northern Gulf of Mexico was a wakeup call to deepwater drilling's inherent risks, said Whittle, with the Environmental Defense Fund.
With friendlier countries, such as Mexico and Canada, the U.S. has detailed agreements about how they will coordinate responses to oil spills that threaten international borders.
Whittle said the U.S. needs a similar protocol with Cuba, mirroring agreements by which the National Hurricane Center works with Cuban forecasters and sends hurricane hunter aircraft into Cuban airspace.
While talks with Repsol are good, they are no substitute for direct talks with Cuba, Whittle said. Until then, he said, the U.S. remains unprepared to deal with a spill in Cuban waters.
U.S. authorities have overseen tabletop oil-spill response exercises at Repsol's offices in Trinidad. In the U.S., they're working with state and local agencies on contingency plans, Bromwich said.
In a recent interview with the Naples Daily News editorial board, Florida Gov. Rick Scott said drilling off Cuba is Florida's "biggest risk" for a spill. He said he has met with the Coast Guard to discuss response plans.
"They have plans and you know, you just hope that they've put in all the safeguards they need and it doesn't happen," Scott said.
U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Brian Salerno told the House subcommittee last week that the Seventh District in Miami would conduct another spill response exercise later in November.