It may not seem likely for a while, but Cuba will drill for oil again off its coast, not far from Florida. And when that happens, new concerns will arise over the safety of the exploration and production that will take place, and whether they pose a threat to the U.S. Likewise, Cuba wants to make sure it’s protected from any mishaps that occur from oil drilling in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico.
With that in mind, the Cuban and U.S. governments struck an agreement in 2017 to cooperate in response to oil spills in the Florida Straits and the Gulf of Mexico, and that accord remains in place despite the Trump administration’s reservations regarding the Obama administration’s move to normalize relations between Washington and Havana.
On a new episode of Columbia Energy Exchange, host Bill Loveless meets with Dan Whittle, the senior director of the Cuba Program at the Environmental Defense Fund. Bill and Dan were among some 90 individuals from the U.S. and Cuba who attended a recent conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida called “The Florida Straits: A Model for International Cooperation.”
Among the topics Bill and Dan discuss are: relations between the U.S. and Cuba on energy and environmental issues, including under the Trump and Obama administrations; Cuba’s energy needs; what’s at stake for Cuba’s environment; and lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the U.S Gulf of Mexico.
View the transcript
Bill Loveless: Hello and welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University from Washington. I’m Bill Loveless. My guest today is Dan Whittle, the senior director of the Cuba program at the Environmental Defense Fund and one of the most active U.S observers of Energy and the environment in Cuba. I caught up with Dan at a meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida where some 90 individuals from the U.S and Cuba gathered to discuss the importance of safe oil drilling in the waters between the two countries.
And the potential for a coordinated response should a spill occur on either side. Now you may not think it’s a timely topic today, several years after failed attempts to find oil of Cuba’s North Shore, and at a time, when there are better opportunities to drill elsewhere in the world. But Cuba with this heavy and then certain reliance on Venezuela for most of its oil is determined to drill for oil again. And both Cuba and the U.S are committed under 2017 agreement, to coordinate efforts to prevent and contain oil spills in the Florida straits and the Gulf of Mexico. Despite new attentions between the two governments. The meeting was organized by two formal officials of the International Association of Drilling Contractors, Lee Hunt and Brian Petty who been promoting cooperation among the U.S, Cuba and other Caribbean nations for several years now.
The program included presentations from the U.S and Cuban researches and marine biology from U.S coast guard officers on their relations with their Cuban counterparts and from U.S companies that provide services and equipment that can respond to an offshore oil spill. Just significantly seated in the audience were several government officials from Cuba, who met later with U.S officials to follow up on the 2017 agreement between Washington and Havana. Dan and I stepped outside the meeting at the Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography at Nova South Eastern University to talk about relations between the U.S and Cuba on the environment and energy over the years, including under the administrations of Barrack Obama and Donald Trump. We also touched on Cuba’s energy needs and once it stake for Cuba’s environment. Here’s our discussion. Dan Whittle welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange.
Dan Whittle: Thank you Bill, great to be here.
Bill Loveless: Well we’re both at this interesting meeting here in Fort Lauderdale actually in Dania Beach. And it’s called the Florida straits a model for International Cooperation. We can talk a little bit more about that, in a minute, but first tell me about yourself and what you do on Cuba at the Environmental Defense Fund?
Dan Whittle: Well, I’m a lawyer and so, I work with a bunch of scientists in the U.S and in Cuba, to protect the beautiful natural ecosystems that they have in the country. Cuba’s one of the most remarkable places in the hemisphere, in terms of biodiversity, in terms of unspoilt natural areas, underwater Cuba is phenomenal. Most of our work concentrates on the ocean and on conserving fish populations, coral reefs and the habitats that fish depend upon.
Bill Loveless: And from the discussions that have taken place at this meeting and all the impression I’m left with is that the ecology of Cuba including fisheries and coral are rather diverse and rather well preserved.
Dan Whittle: That’s right. Cuba’s –many people say Cuba is been lost in time so, they compare Cuba to Florida maybe 60 or 70 years ago. And it’s, it’s an accident of history perhaps because of political relations between the U.S and Cuba, development hasn’t occurred in the same way. But also Cuba has some pretty decent environmental law. So, the government is in the process of trying to protect about 25% of coastal waters for example. Here are some spectacular national parks, Cuba has its fair share of environmental problems for sure, but it still has biodiversity that’s unparallel in the Caribbean’s or well worth protecting.
Bill Loveless: How often do you get there?
Dan Whittle: I get there about every six weeks or so.
Bill Loveless: Really, that’s awesome. And what are you doing when you’re there?
Dan Whittle: So, I have a team of about 4 to 5 scientist and again we partner with Cuban scientist on, identifying the status of fish populations, for example we support research in The Gardens of the Queen, which is one of the spectacular, what they call the Crown Jewel of Cuba to Big National Park 50 miles off the coast. We just finished the two week course of the University of Havana training, three generations, students, middle of career people, and senior scientist and fishery science and management. How to use new scientific tools to rebuild fisheries and sustain them for future generation.
Bill Loveless: So much are there and some of the I think some of the at least one colleague from Cuba is been at this meeting that we’re attending, here in Fort Lauderdale, where some of these discussions have taken place.
Dan Whittle: That’s right, Dr. Patricia González who runs the Center for Marine Researches here. She’s one of our closest partners, the cool thing we’ve done in Cuba is we don’t just work with scientists, we work with fisherman, we work with government officials. Basically anyone who has a hand and making decisions about resources and protecting coastal areas. If you don’t get a coastal communities involved you’re fighting and losing battle, you’ve got to get the people involved, who is livelihoods are in stake. So that’s what we’ve been doing.
Bill Loveless: What –the so that –this meeting we’re at the discussion is by and large about oil. And the potential for Cuba to be drilling again offshore in the next few years. They did so back around 2012, as I recall five wells were drilled. And each of them came up dry, but Cuba as we know needs to diversify its oil supply relies primarily on Venezuela right now. And nit’s looking to its offshore to drill again someday, from your standpoint what is the concern; they are both from the U.S side or from the Cuban side?
Dan Whittle: Cuba is planning to drill off the North West coast so Havana is right on the North Coast, and its right with the Florida straits. So, basically it’s the area between Cuba and the Florida Keys, very dynamic, Chock-full of coral reefs in some cases, corals that have never been explored. So very, virtually pertained. There are bunch of fishing communities, another communities downstream of the oil fields. So, it’s just a very ecologically rich area. So, the concern is, primarily if oil wells go in and if there is an accident, spill for example. The oil will get carried very quickly by the powerful currents of the Florida straits, posing a real, threat to the coastal areas, just right down current Cuba itself. That’s the, that’s the primary concern. If it’s a big enough spill then it could quickly get carried to Florida not just the Key is necessary but South East Florida.
So the challenges is to do it right is to get ready and prepare and but that’s the primary concern. Any kind of, oil exploration in ecologically vulnerable areas are concerned.
Bill Loveless: Right and they’re just as concerned I gathered from hearing from Cuban officials and others about potential for another spill in the U.S waters in the Gulf of Mexico. They haven’t forgotten the deep water horizon explosion in 2010.
Dan Whittle: Absolutely in 2010 after the deep water horizon spill, there is great concern on the Cuba coast and that was back when the U.S and Cuba did not have diplomatic relations. So, that were scrambling to get real time information, in many cases calling me at the Environmental Defense Fund and asking for any information we could send. Ultimately it was the, it was the oil spill that brought the two countries together to start talking –
Bill Loveless: Really.
Dan Whittle: About how do you –how can we start, dialogue to ensure that an oil spill in U.S waters doesn’t affect Cuba and potential oil spill in Cuba doesn’t affect the U.S. so, it was almost as if that was a door opener, crisis result an opportunity somehow
Bill Loveless: Interesting and of course since that time there has been the normalization of relations that was begun under the Obama administration. We –did I hear you say you were there, you were in Havana when the president Obama announced that, that move back in –was 2014?
Dan Whittle: 2014 on December 16, 2014 I was at a conference of US and Cuban experts alimenting the fact that nothing ever changes between the U.S and Cuba and then the next morning president Obama announced that he and President Castro were talking and would soon restore diplomatic relationships. And it was just thrilling, it was incredible. We joined a spontaneous parade in the streets and it was really thrilling.
Bill Loveless: The board _____[00:09:49] Chevys?
Dan Whittle: Absolutely yes. And Buicks.
Bill Loveless: Yeah interesting and of course things did begin to change then, in terms of exchanges between the two governments increased visits by Americans to Cuba, increased interest among American business men in Cuba. But things have changed under the trump administration. Maybe not as drastically as some had or some such as yourself might have feared but nevertheless have changed.
Dan Whittle: Right so, under Obama what happened is, is people just started talking and started finding opportunities to work together to collaborate scientific research, new businesses were spreading up in Cuba, new opportunities for Americans wanting to invest in Cuba. So, the climate was just very hopeful. Many of the changes that Obama made are still intact. The government for example has 22 agreements with Cuba to work on everything from the environment to drug intervention to migration etcetera. Those are still intact under Trump, what is different is that; there is almost a chilling effect. Just in the rhetoric.
Americans –it’s now more confusing about what you can and can’t do. So, we’re kind of waiting to see how things play out. There’s still a chance that, dialogue is still continuing. The door is still opened its cracked open. But so it’s just kind of confusing right now, about where things are heading.
Bill Loveless: Right, but there was just before the Obama administration ended in January of 2017, there was a new agreement announced by the two governments on environmental protection and additional agreement on environmental protection. One that is still among those that is still in force and in fact it is being negotiated I guess to the extent of the follow up work that has to take place. Tell me a little bit about that.
Dan Whittle: So, in January 9th, 2017 right before Obama left office, the U.S and Cuban government signed the final agreement out of 22, and it too cooperative on the oil spills and this was the result of nearly five years dialogue between the two countries about how we can work together if and when Cuba starts drilling for oil, if and when there’s a spill, how can we be ready? And fortunately that, that agreement is still intact. In fact we’re here today to talk about just how important preparedness is, in the world, so in the Gulf of Mexico or the Florida straits, but anywhere you have offshore, or oil drilling it’s critically important, especially in an international contacts to be, to be prepared.
So, fortunately that agreement is still intact and fortunately U.S and Cuban government officials are here in Florida, to talk about how to make that agreement operational.
Bill Loveless: Yeah and it seems as though despite the embargo, whether the United States embargo against Cuba that, there is still the potential for U.S companies to respond to a spill, in Cuban waters, if one were to occur someday using American equipment and all is that right?
Dan Whittle: Yes, yes it’s tricky the embargo’s don’t place and so, there is a dialogue, there is contingency planning, but there is still lot of question marks about, about the potential for American companies to respond to an oil spill, they still need to apply for licenses from the commerce department. So, there is still lot of red tape to navigate so, the good thing about this meeting is to identify those areas that are still problematic and to try to address them within the context of the embargo.
Bill Loveless: Yeah and there’s obviously interest in both sides, I mean we see some American companies who were here at this meeting, who have the, where with all two do that sort of work and are interested in it. We see representatives of Cuba here who obviously are interested in doing that as well. One thing I think of Dan when this topic comes up and it’s one that I’ve been interested in, several years I attended a similar meeting in Havana back in 2015 as to do. Is, you know why, why even discuss this right now? Cuba is not going to drill probably for at least a few more years, the price of oil is low, there’s not really much interest outside of Cuba in going there and doing any drilling. It’s not something that seems about to happen anytime soon.
Dan Whittle: You know I’ve asked my Cuban colleagues that and they say, we have a lot of catching up to do. You can never be prepared enough when it comes to offshore oil and, to major undertaking in any case and, what’s so important about talking now is building those relationships, building the trust and there are lot of details to work out, but it really comes down to people and people knowing people and knowing who to call and who to start working with and that’s really what it’s all about. It’s building the trust and then also sort of all the details that go along with if and when we drill; this is how we need to be prepared.
And again there’s still some bureaucratic and legal issues to work out and better safe than sorry, better to start now. The coast guard said yesterday is, we’re all about readiness and we can’t wait to be ready.
Bill Loveless: You know one, you mentioned the coast guard, I know that yesterday we heard from Rear Admiral Brown who is the Commander for the Seventh Coast Guard District and that includes waters in the Caribbean and off the United States. And he said that the coast guard has had a productive and a political relationship with Cuba since though the mid 1990s.
Dan Whittle: Absolutely that’s excellent example of how the U.S and Cuba have quietly been talking for years on hurricane preparations since the 1960s on drug intervention for decades now. And on the environment now for several years, environmental dialogue and cooperation did not begin with Obama, it’s been going on, quietly for a long, long time. Smithsonian the National Academy of Sciences, the Environmental Defense Fund and others have been quietly working with Cuban counterparts and in some cases Nova and other U.S government agencies, USGS have relationships for some time with Cuba, what happened during Obama is that, those conversations came out of the closet and became much more public. But in the case of the coast guard in particular, that has been a relationship that has almost served as a model for, for dialogue.
Bill Loveless: Right, right yeah it’s interesting. I mean I just find it very interesting that the dialogue can continue despite the troubles we may see or difficulties you may see elsewhere between the two governments these days in Washington. I know you’re rather diagnostic when it comes to oil and gas drilling, you’re an official with environmental organization, but when you travel Cuba what is your sense of the energy needs there and the energy potential?
Dan Whittle: So, the energy needs are quite, quite high. Cuba is dependent upon foreign oil primarily from Venezuela at the moment, which is not a stable situation. For years since I’ve been working there, it’s been real interest in becoming energy independent and that means not only finding another source for fossil fuels, but it means energy efficiency in the mid 2000s the government launched an energy revolution and it’s all about replacing 1950s air conditioning and refrigerators with more modern efficient units, that worked. They significantly reduced energy consumption and now the government has said a target of 24% of their energy needs will be met by renewable by 2030. So, there’s a real desire to move the way from the dependence on foreign sources. But that includes fossil fuels at least in the near term which is why, to the Cuban people and the Cuban government finding domestic sources is so critically important. Which is why I think they’ll continue to look.
Bill Loveless: Right, right and exactly how much oil and potential the country may have, I’ve seen where Cuba estimates that is total reserves, that 20 billion barrels, but who knows, we –it’s probably a whole lot less, than that.
Dan Whittle: Right, right I think the USGS estimates around 4 to 5 and then other estimates are around 12 and then 20 is about the highest estimate that I’ve seen.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, right but I saw other thing is sort of illustrate the challenges that the country faces information from the U.S Energy Information Administration, points to production, oil production in Cuba of 49,000 barrels a day in 2015, now the country consumed 172,000 barrels a day at that time according to U.S.A. Venezuela EIA says reduced its shipments to Cuba and that was subsidized oil essence to Cuba from 100,000 barrels a day in 2012 to 53,500 barrels a day in the first half of 2016. That’s a decline of 46% from Venezuela so, --
Dan Whittle: Yeah it’s and it’s not sustainable and when you’re on the ground in Cuba, people are worried about it. Last year it was hard to find a taxi with gas, you had to wait in line with your taxi driver long lines for gasoline. They would let government workers go home early because they were trying to conserve energy. So, you really do feel, most of the tourist facilities don’t experience blackouts but residential neighborhoods still do, so there’s, there’s a real squeeze at the moment and the real desire to find alternative sources, which is why I’m hopeful that there maybe investment in biomass and wind and solar –
Bill Loveless: Seems like solar would be –
Dan Whittle: It’s a no brainer.
Bill Loveless: An opinion yeah.
Dan Whittle: Yeah it’s a no brainer. And even ocean energy, back in 2008 Environmental Defense Fund helped put on an ocean thermal energy conversion OTEC conference, you know they have all kinds of options, but what they lack is access to access to financing to capital to foreign investment and they’re beginning to change the rules so, investing in Cuba is more attractive from an investment view point.
Bill Loveless: But still from a U.S viewpoint that’s not an option.
Dan Whittle: Not, no it was appearing to be an option, but now it looks like most of that investment will come from overseas.
Bill Loveless: As for Wind Turbines too.
Dan Whittle: Right, right.
Bill Loveless: Cuba and was it Canadian companies or was it –they were, but we saw, we saw wind turbines in Cuba so obviously that’s an option that they’re looking at.
Dan Whittle: Right and there I’m not sure where the investors are from, where the companies are from, but there are new wind farms being planned as we speak. Solar farms being planned. And, the cool thing about Cuba is that, their generation is distributed, they have the most distributed grid outside of Denmark. And so it’s a model for, it’s a model for other island nations for Puerto Rico for example. And why distribution is important is, it’s more resilience so if there’s a hurricane in the North South part of the grid, you’ll not have power across the island for very long. So, when during Hurricane Irma Cuba was back up in running in just three or four days whereas our neighbor, it’s neighbor Puerto Rico is still having struggle.
Bill Loveless: Interesting. I mean did you get the impression that, what whereas the talks and the discussions between the U.S and Cuba now, on environment, that seem to be continuing and, seem to be promising. There is also the potential there that someday there could be more discussion between the countries on energy. I don’t know once, once things like embargo get resolved and some of the other political difficulties.
Dan Whittle: Well, from an environmental viewpoint I would say there’s a huge opportunity for U.S players to get involved in Cuba and in sort of the future energy picture in Cuba. Huge opportunity, environmentally and economically. So, I’m extremely hopeful that the governments will continue to talk and to continue to work our businesses – I’m sorry differences, because this is an opportunity where the environmental interest and the business interest really overlap in energy and even in the oceans. And so, there’s a huge opportunity and I hope we don’t squander it, I hope this is temporary setback and that comer heads will prevail.
Bill Loveless: Yeah when you’re there and having, working on research and these other collaborative projects and all, is there much discussion on how to best balance the countries energy needs and environmental needs.
Dan Whittle: There’s a fair amount of awareness, that there needs to be a transition from fossil fuel, heavy energy port folio to a low carbon economy. So, much of the discussion in Cuba is about a low carbon economy. How can we develop the various sectors including tourism, including agriculture in energy sector in a different way? How can we learn from mistakes? But this climate change is real in Cuba, the seas are rising, the seas are getting warmer, the population in Cuba doesn’t need to be convinced. Science is there, the models are chilling and so, there is a real, there is real desire to do it right, and there is an understanding everywhere you turn that economic development, has to be balanced with sustainability. Despite the fact that, the economy is the number one concern of person on the street.
Bill Loveless: Right, and there’s –we see cooperation elsewhere in the Caribbean when it comes to oil and gas development and protecting against accidents and responding to accidents when they do occur, for example the U.S and Mexico have agreements in place and protocols that address this various issue and which probably could be copied, when it comes to Cuba as well.
Dan Whittle: Absolutely there’s a lot of president working with our neighbors Mexico for sure, Canada working in the Arctic now. It’s not, it’s not Rocket Science, we work with our neighbors most of our neighbors and there are models out there, the Maxis [phonetic] [00:25:19] agreement has been recently updated and it’s by all accounted to pretty decent model, there’s no reason we should not, use that as a starting place.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, yeah there’s been a lot of talk at that at this meeting as being a president and –
Dan Whittle: Right.
Bill Loveless: And with other Caribbean nations as well and it’s a fair amount of potential therefore so, fossil fuel development in the region particularly in the case of natural gas, liquefied natural gas and those sorts of activities as well. So, I expect that we those relationships will continue to build and with an eye towards Cuba and bringing that around, that opportunity around as may happen sometimes soon.
Dan Whittle: Right to me it’s just a mindset issue and when Obama announced a new approach to Cuba we just changed out mindset, we will have from being afraid, from being, from isolating Cuba to seeing truly that the glass was half full, here’s a neighbor with tremendous trade potential. Two cultures that, that like each other and they have been very close, centuries. And so, I think if we shift our mindset back to that, there’s tremendous opportunities to have their cake they needed to develop in a smart way, offshore oil in Cuba. But do it in a way that it doesn’t pose significant risk to Cuban’s or American’s.
Bill Loveless: What are you going to be working on going forward Dan, I’m sure you have a wish list of things you’d like to get to when it comes to Cuba and the research that’s taking place there, what’s high in your list?
Dan Whittle: Well, you know we’re focusing on getting fishing right at the moment. So, commercial fishing is a big deal in Cuba, it’s very important for food security, for jobs and for ecology and so we’re working with Cuban fisherman around the island to do things different. Healthy fish populations are very important for coral reef ecosystems. In coral reef ecosystems mangrove, sea grasses and corals themselves are just extremely valuable for all kinds of things, including protection against hurricanes and storms, they provide a natural buffer. So, our focus –my focus is working with Cuban scientists and Cuban fisherman and others on shoring up marine and coastal ecosystems.
But we’re also looking at, how to make sustainable, how to make agriculture more sustainable? 50% of Cuban arable lands are fallow right now. So, there’s a real need to intensify production, how do you intensify production in a way that it doesn’t impair water quality or downstream, coastal or marine areas? And they were also looking at energy, our focus will be more on the renewable side. How can they ramp that up? But will also be –
Bill Loveless: You mean renewable energy?
Dan Whittle: Renewable energy right, but we’ll also be focused on, if and when Cuba accelerates there off shore oil exploration how, and they do it right? So, everything is connected, it's an island nation and you can’t, if you get fishing right, may win the battle, but you’ll lose the worth if development in coastal areas destroys habitat.
Bill Loveless: We talked about deep water horizon in 2010 and so much has been learnt from that experience, in terms of the ecology of the Gulf and all. I mean I have listened to some of the presentations here from some of the academic representatives and from both countries and, and it seems –I’m amazed by how much we’ve learned about the gulf in this rather short period of time, how much more we’ve learned about the Gulf in this short period of time.
Dan Whittle: That’s really good point because we learned from the deep water horizon spill that we wish we have done more before the spill, to learn about the ecology of the Gulf, in other words we wish we have more baseline studies. Then we compare and analyze what had happened, what the actual impacts were. In Cuba they’re starting to do that. So, this area where they’re thinking about drilling for oil is virtually unexplored and one bright spot was last summer the U.S, U.S and Cuban scientists partnered, they got to ship at the University of Miami and they spent 30 days, circumnavigating the island, looking at deep water coral reefs and making really cool discoveries, new species of sponges, potentially some new species of corals. That baseline research is especially on the north coast is important if we’re going to understand what’s at stake and if there is a problem in the future how that ecosystem is affected by development and by oil.
Bill Loveless: What’s the caliber of the research taking place in Cuba?
Dan Whittle: It’s , it’s phenomenal, how much--Cubans are well trained, the Science has long been a premium. So, you have a, normally high number of PhD scientist, who are able to accomplish a heck of lot with very few resources, there are two or three boats used for marine research and those boats need a bit of upgrading, but the caliber of science is very good, in many cases scientists lack the tools, they lack the equipment. Sometimes they lack access to new thinking in science. But that’s what we do; we try to get scientists together.
Bill Loveless: Is it easy; is it any more difficult to get scientists together, Cuban scientists together, here with their counterparts on the United States, right now?
Dan Whittle: Okay, that’s a good question so, the U.S government has recently reduced staff and the embassy in Havana and what I mean is it’s harder to get the Visa for Cuban scientist to come to the U.S to do training, to go to school, to attend workshops and that’s a real limit, because our success depends upon two way exchanges. It’s not just American scientist going to Cuba, it’s Cuban scientist coming and sharing to the U.S and sharing what they know. So, that two way exchange has worked for many years. We’re seeing that, that slow down because frankly Cuban scientists just can’t get the Visa’s to come here. So, that’s, that’s, that’s something that can be addressed pretty quickly and so we’re focused on that.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, interesting well this is certainly a region that, bears for the scrutiny and for developments that might take place, in the not too distant future. Dan well thank you for joining us on the Columbia Energy Exchange.
Dan Whittle: Yeah it’s my pleasure, thank you Bill.
Bill Loveless: Well, that’s our program this week, thanks for listening and at the risk of repeating myself take a minute if you could to give us a review on your favorite podcast platform. It helps us spread the word. And for more information on the center on Global Energy Policy find us online at energypolicy.columbia.edu or follow us on Twitter and Facebook at Columbiauenergy. For the Columbia Energy Exchange, I’m Bill Loveless will be back with another conversation next week.