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US lawmakers eye oil spill payment from neighbors
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Nov 9, 2011

Two US senators introduced a bill Wednesday seeking to guarantee compensation for any oil spill originating in waters outside the United States, as Cuba aims to strike black gold off its north coast.

In theory, the bill could involve any US neighbor, from Mexico to the Bahamas or Canada.

But it is Cuba's new, promising drive for oil -- which could potentially turn it from a poor, isolated communist outpost into a flush oil-exporting neighbor after decades of dependency on allies -- that has US lawmakers riled and worried.

Particularly after the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, US interests across the Gulf coast fear that the island largely dependent on Venezuelan assistance does not have the finances or knowhow to stop an environmental disaster in the event of a major oil spill.

Despite tense ties between the United States and Cuba, the only one-party Communist regime in the Americas, Cuban authorities in recent months have quietly cooperated with US authorities worried as Spain's Repsol eyes test drilling offshore north of Havana as soon as next month.

Michael Bromwich of the Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement told a congressional panel last week that US officials have reached an agreement with Cuba to inspect an oil rig that Havana intends to use for offshore drilling.

"Repsol has offered US agencies an opportunity to board the Scarabeo 9 rig that Repsol intends to use in Cuban waters to inspect the vessel and drilling equipment and to review relevant documentation," he told a House Natural Resources Committee hearing.

"Given the proximity of drilling to US waters, and considering the serious consequences a major oil spill would have on our economic and environmental interests, we have welcomed the opportunity to gather information on the rig's operation, technology and safety equipment."

On Wednesday, Demnocrats Florida Senator Bill Nelson and New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez introduced their Foreign Oil Pollution Act.

"There shall be no limitation on liability under this act for any incident involving a foreign offshore unit in which oil is discharged and enters or poses a substantial threat to enter the navigable waters or the exclusive economic zone," it reads in part.

Menendez said the measure means that "companies seeking to drill in Cuban waters will think twice once they know they would be fully liable for any damages to the Florida Keys, South Florida beaches, or if the spill reached the Gulf Stream, anywhere up the East Coast."

Though it has a broader scope, Nelson acknowledged that the bill is "in part aimed at the situation in Cuba, where Repsol is planning to drill."

The move came a year and a half after an explosion at a BP-operated well in the Gulf of Mexico led to the worst environmental accident in the history of the oil industry.

Officials said the inspection could take place before the end of the year, with drilling possible soon after.

Daniel Whittle of the non-governmental Environmental Defense Fund, which has held discussions with Havana on the plans, told the committee that the Cuban government "made clear its determination to begin exploratory activities this year" and that up to six exploratory wells may be drilled between 2011 and 2013.

Cuba has long been plagued by energy dependence that amounts to its economic Achilles' heel.

Havana depended on the Soviet bloc for cut-rate oil for decades and plunged into economic chaos and blackouts when it was cut off after 1989.

Some studies estimate Cuba has probable reserves of between five and nine billion barrels of oil in its economic zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Cuban authorities have said their crude reserves are as high as 20 billion barrels.

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