U.S., Cuba join Caribbean nations in oil cleanup pact
By Paul Guzzo | Tribune Staff
Published: March 17, 2014
TAMPA — An international agreement has been approved that makes it
easier for Cuban military boats and aircraft to enter United States
Floridians, however, will hope that day never comes: The procedure will
be activated only in the event of a catastrophic oil spill.
The Wider Caribbean Region Multilateral Technical Operating Procedures
for Offshore Oil Pollution Response was officially released to the
public last week after undergoing nearly three years of review among
five nations with Caribbean shorelines — Mexico, the Bahamas, Jamaica,
the United States and Cuba.
The 60-page document spells out how the five nations should work
together if an oil spoil threatens to extend beyond one nation’s
The agreement streamlines the process for public or private sea or air
vessels to enter another member nation’s territory to help in the
tracking, detainment and cleanup. This includes Cuba, a nation with whom
the U.S. has tense relations.
The agreement is available at www.cep.unep.org/racrempeitc, by clicking
“Regional OPRC Plans” on the menu to the left.
“Cuba or any other the countries could not just enter U.S. territory
without permission,” said U.S. Coast Guard Captain John Slaughter, one
of the government’s leaders in this initiative. “They would have to be
asked for help or they would have to seek permission to help us. But
through this document, if their help is needed, it can be done in a
In an oil spill, time is of the essence.
In the past, said Slaughter, the five nations would have worked together
but it may have taken days following an oil spill for any of the five
governments — not just Cuba and the U.S. — to work through diplomatic
“Previously, I may have had to spent three days figuring out who is in
charge of certain operations in the Bahamas,” said Slaughter.
Visa approval for U.S. personnel to enter other nation’s waters could
have taken valuable time, he added.
Slaughter confirmed in late January that the operating procedure had
been approved by the appropriate parties but he would not elaborate
before the release of a final document.
According to the operating procedure, its “intent is to build a
responder-to-responder network so that in the event of a large oil
spill, participating countries can work effectively together to minimize
the environmental impacts of the spill.”
To do so, it provides the necessary contacts within each nation for all
aspects of oil spill response, such as initial alerts, immigration and
visa approval, vessel movement and government approval for specific oil
containment and cleaning measures.
Email addresses and phone numbers of the contacts are omitted in the
public version of the document.
Other highlights include calling for the nations to work together to
establish a safety zone around the spill, rerouting non-response vessel
traffic away from the affected nation’s waters, and establishing a waste
It also recommends that representatives from the five nations to meet
every six months to consider a host of topics, including discussion of
amendments and maintaining professional relationships, participating in
oil spill training exercises, sharing information that can provide
better safety practices, seeking out private sector assistance, and
foster relations with other countries that could be affected by an oil
spill in Caribbean waters.
Which country takes the lead a specific job is not determined in advance.
“Those decisions are based on the facts of the incident itself,”
The final decision on how the spill should be cleaned and detained —
chemical dispursement, burning or mechanical removal — lies with the
host nation. The other four nations will support the decision with
If the oil spreads into another nation’s borders, its leaders can handle
the oil in their waters as they see fit.
Slaughter stressed that it is “non-binding,” meaning a government does
not have to follow, agree to help or allow assistance. However, he said
he has no reason to believe any of the governments would ignore it.
The oil spill procedure joins a short of list of joint operations
involving both Cuba and the U.S., including efforts to stop drug
smuggling and illegal immigration.
“This hopefully will allow people to see there is no reason why the U.S.
and Cuba should not have similar agreements in other areas when in our
best interests,” said Al Fox, who has worked from Tampa to encourage
normalization of relations with Cuba through his Alliance For
Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation. “Environment has been put above
politics, as it should be. Why should our waters be contaminated with
oil because some people disapprove of Cuba’s government?”
The process to bring the two nations together on the issue began when
Fox introduced U.S. oil and environmental leaders from the private and
government sectors to members of the Cuban government in 2010.
Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010, these
representatives then lobbied the federal government to work with Cuba. A
protocol to protect all nations with Caribbean shortlines in the event
of an oil spill could not have been established unless the U.S. and Cuba
The majority of U.S. technology needed to track, contain and clean an
oil spill belongs to the private sector.
Equipment and resources to deal with a Cuban spill would have been
shipped from as far away as the North Sea, England, North Africa and
Asia and possibly arrived after the oil reached U.S. waters.
An oil spill in Cuba could reach the U.S. in less than a week due to
rapid moving currents.
Cuba’s initial oil exploration came up dry but it has announced its
intentions to try again in 2015. It is believed anywhere from 5 billion
to 20 billion barrels of oil lie beneath Cuban waters.
In 2012, the Office of Foreign Assets Control issued the U.S. Coast
Guard a license to enter Cuban waters with its government approval in
the event an oil spill there might reach the U.S. The Coast Guard was
also licensed to use necessary equipment owned by private companies.
The multi-national meetings were called, in part, to begin clearing
clear away red tape that could have slowed the process.
To circumvent the embargo, workshops between the U.S. and Cuba had to
involve other countries and operate under the auspices of the United
Nations and the Cartagena Convention — an agreement requiring nations in
the Caribbean region to take necessary measures to protect and preserve
rare and fragile ecosystems.
The workshops included representatives the U.S. the Coast Guard, the
Department of State and the Department of the Interior and the
equivalent from the other nations.
“The fact is that we have five nations in a region who clearly
understand the implications their activities have on the region as a
whole,” said Slaughter, with the Coast Guard. “That they have come
together to streamline the process should it be necessary is noteworthy.”
Source: U.S., Cuba join Caribbean nations in oil cleanup pact –