Florida lawmakers look to halt Cuba's offshore oil drilling
By Lesley Clark
With Cuba poised to drill for oil off its coast as early as this spring,
Florida lawmakers are renewing efforts to block it, citing fears about
damage to the state's beaches in the event of a major oil spill.
Sarasota Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan has introduced legislation that
would allow the U.S. Interior Department to deny U.S. oil and gas leases
to companies involved in Cuba's oil drilling operations. Sen. Bill
Nelson plans to re-introduce legislation to pull the U.S. visas for
executives of such companies. Nelson also is hoping to “outline our
position'' in a yet-to-be-scheduled meeting with officials from Spanish
energy giant Repsol, which is working with Cuba.
Buchanan, a staunch opponent to drilling off Florida's coast, said he
worries that Cuba doesn't have the expertise to contain a spill. He said
he has bipartisan support for his efforts, even among lawmakers who have
pushed to relax some restrictions against Cuba.
“We have no drilling 230 miles off our coast,'' Buchanan said,
referring to current U.S. law that keeps rigs at least that far off
Tampa Bay. “So why in the world would we want Cuba drilling within 50
House Foreign Affairs committee chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,
R-Miami, also backs legislation that would deny visas and impose export
sanctions and other penalties on companies involved in Cuba's
operations, noting “some deeply troubling drilling partnerships have
already been established'' and others are under way.
“We need to make sure the pressure stays on to keep these deals from
happening so that we can protect our shores from a potential Cuban
oil-drilling disaster,'' she said.
Environmentalists and others knowledgeable with Cuba's plans suggest the
United States should instead develop an emergency response agreement
with its Cold War nemesis, against whom it has enforced a
five-decades-old trade embargo.
“The rational approach is a direct dialogue between the U.S. and
Cuba,'' said David Guggenheim, a senior fellow at The Ocean Foundation
in Washington. He has been working on marine research and conservation
issues with Cuba for nearly a decade.
Noting that he spoke with Cuban officials worried about damage to the
island's coral reefs during last summer's BP oil spill in the Gulf of
Mexico, Guggenheim added, “if any country should be demonized in this
context, perhaps it should be the one that unleashed the largest Gulf
spill of all time.''
The renewed push for legislation that seeks to dampen global interest in
Cuba's offshore industry comes as a semisubmersible rig is being readied
in Singapore for use in Cuba.
Repsol, which drilled an exploratory well in 2004 off the coast near
Havana, has contracted to drill the first of several exploratory wells.
Other countries also have expressed interest in drilling Cuba.
The Interior Department and the White House declined to comment on
Buchanan's legislation. A spokesman for Repsol said the company had no
comment on the proposal but noted that its plans for 2011 include one
well in Cuba, as well as one offshore and two onshore rigs in the United
Buchanan said his legislation would force Repsol “to make a choice —
Cuba or the U.S.?'' He noted that Repsol “scrapped'' plans to build a
gas development plant in Iran amid U.S. pressure.
But Jorge Piñon, an energy expert and visiting research fellow at the
Florida International University's Cuban Research Institute, argued that
the legislation could put the United States at odds with countries that
drill here and are interested in Cuba, including Brazil and Norway.
“The question to ask is, `Does the company that's going to drill have a
respectable record of environmental stewardship and does it have the
knowhow?' '' Piñon said. “And the answer is yes. I'm not concerned with
Cuba drilling for oil, I'm very concerned we don't have an emergency
plan in case of a spill.''
Guggenheim noted that the National Commission on the BP Deepwater
Horizon Oil Spill recommended last month that the United States enter
into a cooperative spill response agreement with Cuba.
Former Florida Gov. Bob Graham, who co-chaired the commission, said such
an agreement wouldn't be “a capitulation to Castro; rather it is
something in our self-interest to ensure that anything that relates to
drilling have high safety standards.''
Repsol is expected to drill to 5,600 feet — deeper than the Deepwater
Horizon rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico last spring.
Up for exploration is an area about 22 miles north of Havana and 65
miles south of the Marquesas Keys.
Previous efforts to derail Cuba's program have failed: both the Bush and
Obama administrations rejected Nelson's calls to pressure the Cuban
government by withdrawing from a 1977 maritime boundary agreement.
A leading embargo supporter suggests Havana is touting its oil reserves
in hopes of rallying support for easing the embargo. The embargo already
affects the oil program: The country had to secure a rig that didn't
violate the law, which prevents vessels with more than 10 percent U.S.
parts from operating in Cuba.
“This is part of a decade-long propaganda campaign by the regime in
order to secure the oil industry's support for joining the lobby against
the embargo,'' said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of a leading
pro-embargo lobby, the U.S. Cuba Democracy political action committee.
He notes that Cuba lacks capacity for refining crude oil.
“We've been through this before,'' Claver-Carone said of reports that
Cuba is ready to drill. “It's the little boy who cried wolf.''