President Trump recently signed an order extending a ban on drilling in U.S. waters in the Atlantic. But in the Bahamas, a small company has received permission to begin doing exploratory drilling just 150 miles from the Florida coast.
Bahamas Petroleum Company is headquartered on the Isle of Man, part of the United Kingdom, but has offices in the Bahamas. More importantly, it has leases on potential oil fields covering some 4 million acres in waters between Andros, the nation's largest island, and the north coast of Cuba. A high-tech drill ship, the Stena IceMAX, is expected to be onsite and ready to begin drilling by mid-December.
"It's something that's being rushed into prematurely without adequate environmental protection in place," says Casuarina McKinney-Lambert with the Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation.
BREEF is part of a coalition of environmental groups and ecotourism businesses that are raising alarms about plans for a drilling operation that, up till now, has drawn little attention.
The company did an environmental impact assessment and received approval from the Bahamian government. But McKinney-Lambert notes that though the company has tried to reassure critics by stressing that this is just an exploratory well, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico also came from exploratory drilling.
"Exploratory wells can be even more dangerous than extractive wells," she says. "We're very concerned about that and the potential for a large spill. But, we're also concerned about the day-to-day operations."
BPC has declined requests for interviews. In documents it has filed, the company says the drilling site will be some 90 miles from a national park on Andros Island.
It's not far from where Shawn Leadon operates a fishing lodge, the Andros Island Bonefish Club, and an ecotourism business, Andros Outdoor Adventures. The national park includes the largest estuary in the Bahamas. Leadon says it's an incubator for marine species that are important to the entire Caribbean.
"Given that fact, why would you want to put any form of proposal that's going to be damaging to that?" he asks. "Not only is it going to damage my business, it's going to damage the fisheries. It's going to damage the airline industry. It's a domino effect."
A coalition of businesses and environmental groups, Our Islands, Our Future has gathered some 50,000 signatures on a petition asking the Bahamian government to cancel all oil exploration licenses and ban offshore drilling. If there's no response, the group says it will take legal action to block the drilling. Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis hasn't responded to an interview request.
A big question is what happens if there's a major spill. Eight years ago, when Cuba was preparing to drill exploratory wells in its waters, the U.S. Coast Guard and Cuban authorities worked out a detailed agreement on how they would coordinate their response. So far, the Coast Guard hasn't said what its role will be if there's a spill in the Bahamas.
Jorge Pinon, head of the Latin American and Caribbean Energy program at the University of Texas, says the Bahamas doesn't have the resources or expertise to respond to a major spill.
"It would be the United States that would have to come and take care of the remediation, take care of stopping the spill," Pinon says. "So certainly, we need something on paper that says who's going to be in command."
The possibility of an oil spill isn't a problem just for the Bahamas. The exploratory well is located just north of Cuba and close to the Gulf Stream. An oil spill would be a disaster for the entire region.
"Because of the prevailing currents, it's likely that it would first ricochet off Andros Island and then up through the Southeast coast of Florida. It could also affect Cuban waters and Cuban reefs as well. Everything is connected," says Dan Whittle, with the Environmental Defense Fund.
Eight years ago, Cuba's attempts to look for oil came up empty. Even so, industry experts say the geology indicates there should be oil reserves in the area. If this effort is successful in the Bahamas, it will increase the pressure to drill elsewhere in the area — off Cuba and possibly, even off the coast of Florida.