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Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Sunday, January 30, 2011
Cuba drilling sparks bills

Concerns about the Cuban government drilling for oil 50 miles off the Florida Keys have reached an all-time high and several federal bills have been filed to block foreign companies from oil exploration off the Caribbean island.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., introduced legislation earlier this month to stop Cuba's plan to build a deep-water oil rig just 50 miles off the Florida coast. Buchanan's bill would authorize the U.S. interior secretary to deny leases to companies that do business with any nation currently facing U.S. trade sanctions, such as Cuba. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-South Florida, this winter plans to reintroduce similar legislation she proposed last year. Her bill amends the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 to deny U.S. visas to aliens contributing to Cuba's ability to develop petroleum resources off its coast. The bill would impose export sanctions and other penalties on people and entities that invest in the development of Cuba's petroleum resources.

The Cuban government has contracted with a Spanish company, Repsol, to begin drilling the new well. Cuba is 90 miles from the Keys, but its jurisdiction in the Atlantic Ocean extends even farther, to just 50 miles from our shore. Cuba wants to drill for oil even deeper than BP's ill-fated rig that spilled more than 4.9 million barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

The U.S. cannot directly stop Cuba from drilling in its own waters, but Buchanan's bill could threaten Repsol's projects in the U.S. by denying them oil leases. The company operates rigs near Texas and Louisiana.

"The safety of our coastline is critical. It is of utmost importance to us," Buchanan said when he discussed his bill on the House floor Thursday. "Florida doesn't allow drilling within 125 miles of our shores, so why would we allow Cuba to drill closer? ... If there was a spill, they claim it would take three days to get to our shores. Whose problem does it become then? Let me guess -- America's problem."

Repsol's oil platform for Cuba could begin operating off the Florida coast later this year, according to recent press reports.

"As we have learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, an oil spill can devastate a regional economy and impose serious long-term environmental damage to precious natural resources," Buchanan said. "My bill would help eliminate the threat of a similar spill off the Florida Keys by authorizing the interior secretary to deny permits for the project."

Facing pressure from the U.S. several years ago, Repsol scrapped plans to build a gas development plant in Iran, according to Buchanan's office. He said he hopes Repsol will take similar action and abandon its contract with Cuba if his legislation is passed.

In October, Buchanan wrote President Obama to work with the Spanish government to block Cuba's plan to drill for oil off Florida shores.

The proposed oil well would drill 5,600 feet, which would be even deeper than BP's 5,000-foot well at Deepwater Horizon, Buchanan said.

"Quickly capping the well would be extremely difficult, if not impossible," Buchanan said. "It would take just three days for oil to reach Florida's beaches if a spill occurred at the site."

Ros-Lehtinen also sees the potential for an environmental disaster like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but this time the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the waters off South Florida would be the epicenter.

"We need to take responsible precautions to ensure that a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill does not happen again," Ros-Lehtinen said. "This must include preventing investments that help the Cuban regime pursue its own wild oil-drilling endeavors so close to U.S. shores. ... Some deeply troubling drilling partnerships have already been established, but others have yet to materialize."

Buchanan and Ros-Lehtinen are not the only Florida federal legislators fighting to keep Cuba from drilling. Sen. Bill Nelson sent Obama a letter in May stating he was "greatly concerned by reports that Spanish oil giant Repsol has contracted with a unit of Italian oil company Eni SpA to operate an exploratory rig off of Cuba's northwest shores."

Cuba's state-run oil company, Cubapetroleo, continues to lease individual exploration areas to foreign oil companies in both the Florida Straits and Gulf of Mexico, said Nelson, D-Fla. Cuba has leased 17 of 59 areas to oil and gas companies based in Spain, Norway, India, Malaysia, Venezuela, Vietnam and Brazil, Nelson said. There are also reports that Cuba is negotiating a lease with the China National Petroleum Corp. to jointly explore as many as five offshore blocks in the Gulf.

"It is clear that we cannot condone drilling so close to Florida," Nelson wrote Obama. "I look forward to working with you to ensure that we not only protect Florida, but also prevent the Castro regime from being enriched at our expense."

Cuba's ability to drill so close to Florida stems from the 1977 U.S. Cuba Maritime Boundary Agreement, which was approved by then-President Jimmy Carter as a way to settle ongoing fishery boundary disputes. The agreement sets Cuban waters at 45 miles off the Keys, the halfway point between the two countries.

The agreement has never been ratified by the Senate, but has been enforced via the exchange of diplomatic letters every two years, Nelson said. He contends the agreement was put in place to settle fishing rights issues, not oil drilling and other mineral rights disputes.

"I urge you to recall the diplomatic note and to work in the national security of the United States to prohibit the Cuban regime from initiating further drilling," Nelson wrote. "I am sure you agree that we cannot allow Cuba to put at risk Florida's major business and irreplaceable environment."

Obama's national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, responded to Nelson's letter by saying the U.S. will not withdraw from the agreement. Jones contends that withdrawing would have no effect on Cuba drilling and would "call into question a maritime boundary considered beneficial to the United States."

Fears of Cuba drilling arise every several years and last surfaced five years ago with reports of China helping Cuba drill for oil. Nelson has responded each time with proposed legislation that would allow the U.S. government to deny visas to foreign oil executives conducting business with Cuba and curb their ability to do business in the U.S.

A decades-old trade embargo already forbids most U.S. companies from doing business with Cuba.

Nelson was unsuccessful in having the legislation passed in 2009 and he did not refile it in 2010 because he and other legislators are focused on health care, financial reform and the Deepwater Horizon spill, his spokesman told The Citizen.

tohara@keysnews.com

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