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Regulating Oil Drilling in Cuba

by Michael Levi
October 1, 2010

Cliff Krauss’s otherwise excellent article in the New York Times yesterday on the safety risks from Cuban oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico had one big and important omission: it said nothing about the quality of the Cuban regulator. That quality, of course, will have big implications for the odds of the sort of oil spill that the article talks about. In a trip to Cuba this past July, I had a chance to meet with Cuban regulators and understand a bit about how they’re thinking.

The Cuban regulators seem to be on firm methodological ground. They proudly pointed out that they were using the sort of “safety case” approach that was conspicuously absent in U.S. regulation before the Macondo (BP) disaster. Indeed, in that sense, they’re ahead of the United States.

The top regulators also appeared to be technically solid. This is, of course, a difficult thing to judge from limited interaction, but I saw no reason to doubt their skill.

What worries me much more is the people I didn’t see — that is, the lower level people. I have two concerns. First, effectively overseeing operations is not just a matter of studying textbooks – it’s a matter of experience. And, despite the fact that Cuba has sent many of its people overseas, such experience (particularly in the Cuban context) is inevitably limited. Second, given the pathetic salaries that Cuban workers receive, the possibility of bribery (or something more subtle) by oil company officials is going to be ever-present. That may undermine whatever approach Cuba chooses.

So what’s the United States to do? Senator Bill Nelson has one answer: change the maritime border so that Cuba can’t drill. Unless the United States wants to go to war, this isn’t going to happen. (To be completely clear: I think that unilaterally changing the border is a terrible idea.) The only option is to engage with Cuba as much as possible in an effort to better understand its approach, and, to the extent possible, to strengthen it.

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