Keys fear disaster if Cuba taps nearby oil
By Mike Williams
Palm Beach Post-Cox News Service
Monday, January 01, 2007
KEY LARGO — The pelicans gather each afternoon, cute, gawky and hungry.
They flap and flop awkwardly among the mangrove roots as Juan Leon, a
worker at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center, tosses them fish to
supplement their natural diet.
"We feed them because the natural fish population isn't what it should
be," said Bruce Horn, who heads the center, which helps rescue injured
and sick birds. "Our environment here is very fragile."
That's why Horn and other residents of this vacation paradise are
worried about news that the Cuban government has struck oil just a few
dozen miles from this environmentally sensitive string of islands.
"That's absolutely scary," Horn says. "The Keys don't have sandy
beaches, and you couldn't just scoop up oil if there was a spill. If it
got into the mangrove roots, it would be disastrous."
Experts say the size of Cuba's offshore oil deposits is still in
question, but the potential is impressive. A U.S. Geological Survey
study estimates that a curving belt of ocean floor north of Cuba may
contain at least 4.5 billion barrels of oil and nearly 10 trillion cubic
feet of natural gas.
In contrast, an area in U.S. waters about 200 miles west of Tampa that
Congress just approved for drilling is believed to hold about 1.3
billion barrels of oil and 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The
United States uses about 21 million barrels of oil a day.
For impoverished Cuba, the oil prospects are dazzling, and Fidel
Castro's government has wasted no time in pushing to develop the fields.
The region has been divided into 59 exploration blocks, and Cuba has
signed deals with foreign oil firms to begin drilling in earnest.
One well that the Spanish oil company Repsol-YPF sank already has found
oil, but not in commercially viable quantities.
"But it was enough that Norway's Norsk Hydro acquired a 30 percent
stake," said Jorge Pinon, a former oil company executive who is now a
research associate at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and
"Norsk Hydro wouldn't go to Cuba for political purposes," Pinon said.
"They are one of the best deepwater drilling companies in the world, and
if they are going in, it is likely this will be viable."
Cuba has signed other oil deals with firms from Venezuela, India, China
and Canada, a clear sign that a Cuban oil boom is brewing. But Pinon
says it will be several years before the offshore Cuban operations crank
into high gear because of soaring demand around the world for the
limited number of deepwater rigs.
The activity has piqued the interest of U.S. lawmakers. Competing bills
were introduced in Congress this year, with supporters of the U.S.
embargo against Cuba proposing to deny visas to foreign oil workers
headed to Cuba. Their opponents introduced a bill that would exempt U.S.
firms from the embargo and allow them to participate in the Cuban oil rush.
"At risk are the Florida Keys and the state's tourism economy, not to
mention the $8 billion that Congress is investing to restore the
Everglades," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., one of the sponsors of the
bill aiming to limit the Cuban drilling.
Neither bill passed, but the issue seems certain to come up again.
Embargo opponents hope that the new Congress, which Democrats will run
for the first time in more than a decade, will ease the trade and travel
restrictions and allow U.S. participation. The Cuban government has
sought bids from American oil firms.
"This is a product the U.S. needs," said Kirby Jones, president of the
U.S.-Cuba Trade Association, a group seeking to break the embargo. "If
we maintain the embargo, it says we don't need that oil and it's OK for
India, Canada, Spain and these other countries to take it."
With some of the Cuban exploration blocks just 50 miles from Key West,
many Keys residents would prefer no drilling at all. Short of that, they
would rather have American companies involved.
"My concern is that these other companies may not have the safety
precautions that U.S. companies follow," said Joe Angelo, manager of
Ocean Divers, a scuba diving outfit in Key Largo. "A spill would wipe us
The Cuban exploration is tied to a 1977 treaty that the United States
and Cuba signed setting the offshore boundary between the countries. The
line runs roughly down the center of the Florida Straits, a channel that
is about 100 miles wide and separates Cuba from the Florida Keys.
The Keys are home to a huge coral reef, an underwater formation rich in
marine life. State and federal parks and reserves already protect much
of the reef, and it has spawned a thriving tourism industry catering to
scuba divers, fishermen and offshore sightseers.
But the Keys are not the only Florida area at risk.
Ocean currents that run like rivers in the sea carry water from the Gulf
of Mexico through the Florida Straits and up Florida's east coast.
"Any spill in the eastern gulf can wind up putting materials into the
current and then onto the east coast of Florida," said Robert Weisberg,
an oceanographer and ocean current expert at the University of South
Florida. "The current is always there, and the risk is real."
But even without a major spill, Keys environmentalists say, oil drilling
and fragile reefs shouldn't mix.
"Routine operations can be devastating because of the chronic daily
discharge of drilling mud that carries heavy metals and other toxic
materials," said DeeVon Quirolo, founder of Reef Relief, one of the
Keys' oldest environmental groups. "It poses a grave threat not only to
Florida's reefs but also to the reefs along the Cuban coast."
Although Cuba has benefited lately from a deal in which Venezuela is
providing oil and gas at a discounted price, it seems clear that the
communist island will continue the drive to secure its own offshore oil
Keys residents, already threatened by hurricanes and rapid development
that is degrading water quality, figure the Cuban oil rush will be one
more risk they must face.
"The reefs are the only way people have to make money here," said
Jessica Dombrowski, who works at Key Largo Watersports, where tourists
rent boats and water scooters. "This is the scuba diving capital of the
U.S. If they kill the reef, they kill the Keys."