WASHINGTON (Dow Jones)–Several U.S. companies are asking the Obama administration for permission to respond to potential oil spills in Cuban waters, a top offshore drilling regulator said Wednesday, hoping to overcome embargo restrictions that currently limit their ability to do so.
The companies’ requests coincide with a growing concern among oil-industry experts who say the U.S. embargo on Cuba could cripple the ability of spill-containment companies to respond to potential spills that start in Cuban waters but then move to U.S. shores.
Speaking at a congressional hearing Wednesday, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Director Michael Bromwich said several companies have asked the U.S. Commerce Department for licenses that would allow them to use subsea well containment systems and other types of equipment to respond to spills in Cuban waters.
Bromwich said he had “a high level of confidence” the Commerce Department would approve the licenses, in large part because it had already issued separate approvals for oil-spill containment systems and cleanup items. U.S. government agencies “are very much on alert, looking for the licenses [applications] as they come in and my understanding is that they’re giving them very rapid attention and they’re approving them as promptly as they can.”
The administration’s efforts are not without controversy. The chairman of the House Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R., Colo.), said Wednesday that he is concerned “this administration will weaken the U.S. embargo on Cuba.”
Earlier in the week, the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to do more to prevent Cuba’s oil-drilling plans. “This scheme endangers U.S. security and environmental interests, and will enrich the Cuban regime,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), a Cuban-born American, said.
Many environmental and oil-industry experts have taken a different approach and have urged the administration to give broad flexibility to U.S. companies that are equipped to respond to spills.
They contend Cuba will pursue oil exploration, regardless of whether the U.S. disapproves, so the U.S. should simply prepare for possible accidents.
Cuba’s offshore drilling plans get under way in coming months when Spanish company Repsol YPF SA (REPYY, REP.MC) starts to conduct exploratory drilling off the country’s northern coast. Repsol is transporting a Chinese-built rig to be used for the exploration work.
Repsol has voluntarily agreed to allow U.S. officials to inspect the rig before it enters Cuban waters. The company has also agreed to comply with U.S. drilling standards.
-By Tennille Tracy, Dow Jones Newswires