E&E News: Caribbean Nations Look To Share Emergency Resources

September 19, 2012
oil rig

By Nathanial Gronewold, E&E reporter
Environment & Energy Publishing
Published date: Monday, September 17, 2012

HOUSTON — Caribbean Sea nations are moving to coordinate their oil spill response strategies as interest grows in deepwater offshore drilling in the region.

Though surface spill response measures are largely in place in some parts of the region, organizers of a first-ever forum on the topic held in Trinidad and Tobago last week acknowledge that plans and equipment for tackling spills in deep columns of water are lacking.

And the industry is still bumping up against concerns that an expansion of drilling and a possible accidental spill could devastate tourism at the Caribbean’s popular beach resorts.

Nevertheless, industry insiders say offshore drilling in the Caribbean is expanding and more countries are eager to get in on the game, even those that have never hosted significant oil and gas activity. And with dozens of countries involved, they are encouraging regulators and private companies to take to heart the lessons of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico deepwater oil spill in their plans for expanding oil and gas activity.

More than 100 participants from eight regional countries participated in the first annual “One Caribbean-One Response” conference, organizers said in a Friday press call. The conference aimed to gauge the level of exploration activity and interest, existing spill response plans and the gaps in capability and equipment that need to be filled.

Lee Hunt, former president of the International Association of Drilling Contractors and founder of Open Forum, said governments should next determine how they will go about sharing information, equipment and expertise in the event of an oil spill in the Caribbean’s environmentally sensitive waters and shorelines.

“The next step forward will probably be a dialogue between several of the key governments — that would likely be Mexico, Trinidad, the Bahamas at this point and French Guiana — about how to create a system of shared resources for emergency spill response in the deep water,” Hunt said.

Industry experts like him say they are aiming to beef up existing response plans.

“All of these countries have, frankly, very robust and advanced national spill response plans that address the two-dimensional issue, the surface response,” he explained. “What we’re doing as an industry and going into the deep water is adding the third dimension, making it a three-dimensional issue of not only a surface response but depth response at a mile to 2 miles deep, and a whole new set of issues and challenges that brings to the table.”

Oil and gas activity can be found throughout the Caribbean and nearby, Hunt noted.

East of the region, companies are exploring along the northeastern tip of South America, off the coasts of French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana. Venezuela’s national oil concern controls activity off that nation’s coastline, but Colombia has been eager to invite private-sector companies to open its northern continental shelf to deepwater offshore drilling leases.

Mexico is already expanding its offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and is looking to its Caribbean coast off the Yucatan Peninsula for opportunities, as well. Governments in Haiti, the Bahamas, Jamaica and elsewhere in the region are also considering opportunities to invite offshore energy investments.

But Michael Bromwich, former director of the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, who is now heading the private consultancy the Bromwich Group, acknowledged that worries about the industry’s effects on tourism have slowed enthusiasm in some parts of the region, most notably in Belize, where Hunt said interest in allowing offshore drilling has been “on again, off again.”

“As I understand it, the on again, off again is directly traceable to concerns about the threat that a potential spill would create for the tourism industry,” Bromwich said at the conference.

Trinidad and Tobago could be leader

Trinidad and Tobago is an exception, Bromwich noted, as that nation has hosted oil and gas operations for a century and has never been a major tourist destination. Elsewhere in the region, drillers should expect a more tentative approach to block sales and offshore energy development, particularly where tourism is considered very important to the economy, he argued.

“What we will see over time is something other than a linear progression,” Bromwich explained. “I think with the individual politics of the individual countries, you’ll probably see them pulling and hauling between the forces that are determined to reach for offshore development, with the revenues that can generate for some fairly poor countries, and on the other hand, real concerns for how that might jeopardize the tourism that many of the islands absolutely rely on.”

At a recent industry gathering in New Orleans, David Coatney, chief of the Helix Well Containment Group (HWCG), said his company was in talks with oil and gas officials in Mexico and the Caribbean Sea to arrange for its equipment to be made available to operations outside of the United States. HWCG’s subsea capping stacks and other spill intervention equipment are currently housed in the Houston area.

Hunt argued that Trinidad and Tobago is uniquely suited to become a main staging area for intervening in a theoretical oil spill in and around the Caribbean Sea, because it has a major airport and deepwater ports that can accommodate large vessels.

“It is already a staging area for much of the work going on in Suriname and French Guiana, so I think you would see Trinidad and Tobago becoming the hub,” Hunt said.

The group that organized last week’s forum said it hopes to make it an annual event. Bromwich said that at the next round of talks, it would seek to invite “perhaps a broader group of regulators in the region so we can begin to push forward in developing mechanisms.”