Despite announcing last month that the Scarabeo 9 oil rig now off Cuba "generally" meets acceptable safety standards, federal officials acknowledged this week that results of their inspection of the platform would have prohibited it from drilling in U.S. waters.
Testifying before a U.S. House panel at a hearing at a Sunny Isles Beach hotel Monday, Lars Herbst, Gulf of Mexico director of the Department of Interior's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Inspections, said under questioning that his agency's inspection was not as thorough as it would have been if the rig were under U.S. oversight.
Herbst told Republican members of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure that DOI found unsafe welding and incomplete wiring on safety systems that the United States government would demand be fixed before allowing the rig to operate in U.S.-controlled areas of the Florida Straits or the Gulf of Mexico.
The inspection was done off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago in early January at the invitation of Repsol, the Spanish company that is the first of several international energy companies to lease the Scarabeo 9 as it mines for oil on Cuba's side of the Florida Straits.
But since the rig is operating in Cuban waters by a foreign company, U.S. inspectors have no way to independently verify if Repsol fixed the problems found by DOI and the Coast Guard. The United States also has no authority to demand the repairs be made.
"We only have the word of Repsol because we would have no way of knowing ourselves. We would not allow it," Herbst told Rep. David Rivera (R-Miami).
"We have a major problem then," Rivera replied to Herbst.
The Coast Guard and DOI released a joint statement on their inspection in early January saying what many observers took to mean the Scarabeo 9 meets the types of safety standards to satisfy U.S. scrutiny.
"The review compared the vessel with applicable international safety and security standards as well as U.S. standards for drilling units operating in the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf. U.S. personnel found the vessel to generally comply with existing international and U.S. standards by which Repsol has pledged to abide," the statement read.
But Herbst now says U.S. inspectors would demand a "follow-up" before greenlighting the Scarabeo 9. "The level of review we did offshore [of Trinidad and Tobago] was not thorough enough for us to allow [the rig] to drill in the U.S.," Herbst said.
Rivera, whose district includes Homestead and Naples, has introduced a bill that would require foreign companies to pay to clean up spilled oil reaching the United States. The bill is now in the Transportation and Infrastructure committee. It is one of several pieces of legislation filed by both Democrat and Republican lawmakers the past two years in response to Cuba's offshore drilling plans.
The Scarabeo 9 arrived in the Straits between Havana and Key West on Jan. 19. Rear Adm. William Baumgartner, commander of the Coast Guard's Seventh District, told the panel that as of Monday, the rig was "not quite at the [drilling] location," which he said is 80 miles from Key West.
But drilling is expected to begin within days, Baumgartner said, since Repsol is paying Eni S.p.A, the Italian company that owns the Scarabeo 9, $511,000 a day to lease the rig.
Baumgartner said the Coast Guard has updated contingency plans it has in place to respond to an oil spill in a neighboring country's waters. He said Repsol has been cooperating with the Coast Guard since March 2011.
In written testimony Baumgartner said Repsol has allowed the Coast Guard to study the company's "response strategies, resources, and capabilities in order to protect U.S. interests in the event of an oil spill incident."
If a spill does happen at the Scarabeo 9 site, Debbie Payton, chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's emergency response division, said the Gulf Stream current would likely move the oil quickly toward the Florida coastline. The strong current "could potentially move spilled oil more than 70 nautical miles in 24 hours," Payton said.
But even though the Keys are the closest U.S. territory to the rig, they would most likely be spared from a spill in the Straits because the fast-moving current would probably shield the island chain as it moved the oil north, Payton said.
But Richard Dodge, dean of Nova Southeastern University's Oceanographic Center, said that no area along Florida's coast would be completely protected from a spill off Cuba. Even if the Keys went untouched by the original release, dispersants would probably be used to break up some of the oil, and dispersants "are especially bad for the coral reef."
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