May 19, 2010 / 8:49 PM / 9 years ago

Washington, Havana talk about oil spill risk to Cuba

* Forecasters say current could carry oil to Cuban shores

* US, Cuba urged to cooperate on environmental protection

* Cuba oil drilling plans seen having similar spill risks

By Pascal Fletcher

MIAMI, May 19 (Reuters) - The United States and Cuba, close neighbors but ideological foes, are talking about the potential risks from a huge Gulf of Mexico oil spill that forecasters say could be carried to Cuban shores by strong ocean currents.

The oil gushing from a blown out seabed well owned by London-based BP Plc (BP.L) in U.S. waters already has affected some parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast shoreline in what officials fear will inflict an ecological and economic catastrophe.

Oceanographers are predicting that a powerful ocean flow known as the Loop Current could carry some of the oil southeast through the Florida Straits, threatening the coastlines of southern Florida and the northwest of Cuba.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Virginia Staab said U.S. diplomats in Havana delivered a note to communist-ruled Cuba’s foreign ministry on Wednesday informing it about the oil spill and what was known about the slick’s projected movement.

“We have had working-level discussions with the Cuban government to keep them informed of developments,” she said.

“We also communicated the U.S. desire to maintain a clear line of communication with the Cuban government on developments,” Staab added, stressing that “stopping the oil leak is our top priority.”

Cuba has said it is monitoring the U.S. oil spill.

Washington and Havana do not have formal diplomatic relations, which were broken off in the wake of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution that ushered in one-party communism to Cuba.

The United States maintains a long-standing trade embargo against Cuba. The two governments, despite President Barack Obama’s wishes for a “new beginning” in relations, remain at odds over human rights and many other issues.

They have, however, initiated talks on matters deemed of mutual interest, such as migration and resuming postal service. Supporters of increased contacts say environmental protection should be high on that agenda.

Two Cuba experts who are advisors to the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank said in a May report that environmental cooperation was essential for both countries to be able to work together effectively against the kind of ecological disaster that the Gulf oil spill heralded.

“Obviously, the establishment of working relations between the United States and Cuba to facilitate marine environmental protection is the first step in the contingency planning and cooperation that will be necessary to an effective response and early end to an oil spill,” attorney Robert Muse and oil expert Jorge Pinon said in the joint paper.

CUBAN DRILLING PLANS

Although the oil that could threaten Cuba is gushing from a well in U.S. waters, Muse and Pinon said there was the same possible risk of an accident in Cuba’s plans to move forward with deepwater exploration drilling in its own territorial segment of the Gulf of Mexico.

“The sobering fact that a Cuban spill could foul hundreds of miles of American coastline and do profound harm to important marine habitats demands cooperative and proactive planning by Washington and Havana to minimize or avoid such a calamity,” they wrote.

Like the United States, the world’s top oil consumer, energy-starved Cuba also is anxious to expand its own hydrocarbons resources. Havana has contracted out parts of its Gulf of Mexico zone for exploration by oil company partners from Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Muse and Pinon said any effective U.S.-Cuban response to a catastrophic oil spill would require free movement of equipment and expertise between the two countries, something currently blocked by the U.S. trade embargo.

Urging more cooperation, they said “the Obama administration, irrespective of the current embargo, has the power to license the sale, lease or loan of emergency relief and reconstruction equipment to Cuba (and) also has the authority to license U.S. citizens to perform emergency response and subsequent reconstruction services in Cuba.”

The United States should hold joint exercises with Cuba to coordinate emergency responses, and facilitate immediate scientific cooperation, Muse and Pinon said.

The Miami Herald reported on Wednesday that U.S. scientists who have been working on marine research and conservation issues with Cuban officials for nearly a decade were pulling together information on the spill for their peers in Cuba.

Additional reporting by Deborah Charles in Washington and Esteban Israel and Marc Frank in Havana; Editing by Will Dunham

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