With Macondo fresh on their minds, and drilling activity rising in the Caribbean or GOM areas close to it, some hard questions are being asked about the region’s approach toward the potential for a spill. In this week’s Oilgram News column “At the Wellhead,” Leslie Moore-Mira discusses some of the issues facing the Caribbean’s littoral nations.
The beat is off but the concept of this week’s “One Caribbean, One Response” conference — which aims to inspire regional collaboration and workable oil spill response plans — strikes a similar chord with Bob Marley’s “One Love, One Heart” anthem.
Oil drillers and environmentalists will share talking points. Competing nations with exposure to the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico will call for cooperation and rally for unity.
Thought up by Lee Hunt, the former head of the International Association of Drilling Contractors who jokes about finding oil cleanup “religion” after the 2010 BP Macondo oil spill incident, “One Caribbean, One Response” is timed as offshore hydrocarbon exploration heats up there. The conference is set for September 13 in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
Mexico last month reported its first “major” deepwater find at Trion 1 well, 110 miles off the coast of the northern Gulf state of Tamaulipas along the Mexican portion of the Perdido Fold Belt near US waters. Mexico plans to invest $5 billion in 2012-2016 on deepwater plans.
Jamaica’s nascent offshore plans are slowly taking shape and the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago on September 5 announced that bids on five of six Atlantic blocks were made as part of a deepwater bid round. Anglo-Dutch explorer Shell is drilling offshore French Guiana. The publicly traded Bahamas Petroleum Company was on the cusp of exploratory offshore drilling, though a to-drill or not-to-drill referendum has now been scheduled for the island country.
In Colombia, Equion Energy, Petrobras and Colombia’s state-controlled Ecopetrol, last year launched a $120 million offshore natural gas exploration project in the Caribbean offshore Cartagena, Colombia.
While Hunt thinks drillers in the Caribbean generally have “good” surface oil spill plans, many lack sufficient plans and equipment should a large subsea spill occur, either in shallow or deepwaters, he said. “On paper,” at least, Cuba, Mexico, and the US have solid response plans while newcomers such Jamaica and the Bahamas “don’t really have plans,” said US Coast Guard Captain John Slaughter, who helps oversee US-Caribbean spill preparedness efforts backed by the International Maritime Organization.
Until recently, the biggest threat for much of the Caribbean came from the prospect of an oil tanker accident. But as offshore drilling ramps up, so will risks, Slaughter said in a phone interview. “What was once inconceivable is realistic and definitely conceivable,” Slaughter said. “When things go wrong, they go wrong badly,” he said.
The cost of a large oil spill would be enormous for small Caribbean economies that rely on tourism and fisheries, said Eleanor Phillips of The Nature Conservancy’s Northern Caribbean program. Phillips’ Bahamas-based office has embarked on an “economic valuation” of reefs and marine habitats across the Caribbean. Even in Mexico, one of the region’s largest economies, tourism and oil bucks compete for top revenue honors in the formal economy.
Countries’ spill response differences are emerging, Hunt said. Mexico, for example, resists the use of chemical dispersants, which the US used in the BP incident to break up oil, he said. (At least one study suggests dispersants have damaged sealife in the wake of the BP spill.) An official with Mexico’s National Hydrocarbons Commission was not available for comment.
A big spill could very well cause regional disputes. Given sea current patterns, oil spill gunk originating offshore in one country would likely drift and enter maritime borders of another country, notes Matt Cadwallader of oceanography services firm Horizon Marine, which is providing GPS-outfitted buoys to Shell’s French Guiana project.
Eddies from northern Brazil, for example, eventually feed into the Caribbean Sea. Should oil drillers in French Guiana or Suriname waters cause an oil spill, “it won’t be their problem, it will be Trinidad and Tobago’s problem” as oil seeps across borders, Cadwallader said. That raises a key question for Cadwallader: Who takes control in the event of a cross-border spill?
Michael Bromwich, the former head of the now disbanded US agency Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, last week said the US could take a key role. Those with Caribbean Basin exposure “tend to look to the US and I don’t think that’s anything we should shirk away from,” Bromwich, now a consultant, said in a phone interview.
Agreements between Mexico and the US could serve as a blueprint. In the aftermath of Pemex’s 1979 Ixtoc oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which tarred Texas and Mexican coastlines, the two nations hammered out an agreement for handling oil spills. The MexUS agreement sets procedures to coordinate bilateral spill responses. Mexico and the US conduct joint oil spill response exercises every other year, though these are not “fully scaled,” due to high costs, Slaughter said.
–Leslie Moore-Mira in New York