Advocates of gulf oil-drilling ban worried by talks with Cuba
Paul Guzzo, Times Staff Writer
Monday, August 15, 2016 1:45pm
A few hundred miles from the west coast of Florida is a
7,700-square-mile area of the Gulf of Mexico known as the Eastern Gap,
thought to be rich with oil but with no clear owner.
The U.S., Cuban and Mexican governments are now negotiating how to split
the area among the three nations. Once that happens, each country can
drill for oil in its allotted portion.
But for Cuba, this could also open its entire side of the Gulf for oil
exploration, including the region directly on the other side of the
maritime border from the Tampa Bay area.
This worries elected officials who support the current drilling
moratorium that covers much of the U.S. side of the eastern Gulf —
including within 234 miles of Tampa Bay — that is meant to protect the
area from spills.
“This is an issue of great concern, and I don’t say that lightly,” said
Rep. David Jolly, a Pinellas County Republican.
Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, echoes Jolly’s sentiment.
“We should do everything possible to prevent risky oil drilling in the
Gulf of Mexico,” Castor said. “The hard lessons from the BP Deepwater
Horizon disaster will never be forgotten.”
A country has rights to any maritime resources within 200 miles of its
coastline. But the Eastern Gap falls just outside that boundary for the
United States, Cuba and Mexico.
Once negotiations are complete, the United States is expected to own 70
percent of the Eastern Gap. Mexico will likely receive 20 percent, none
of which is connected to or faces Florida waters.
Cuba will probably own just 9 percent of the Eastern Gap, but because
that small portion both faces and is connected to the west coast of
Florida’s waters, it could greatly affect the Tampa Bay area, said Jorge
Piñon, director of the Latin America and Caribbean Energy Program at the
University of Texas.
“You need to look beyond that nine percent and the gap,” he said. “It
will open up the entire other side of the U.S. moratorium area’s fence.”
An estimated 5 billion to 20 billion barrels of oil and 8 billion cubic
feet of natural gas lie beneath Cuban waters.
This energy source could be more important to Cuba than ever. Venezuela
currently supplies Cuba with the bulk of its oil in a unique exchange
for doctors and teachers. But as Venezuela’s economy struggles, there is
no telling how much longer it can support Cuba.
The Cuban government has yet to lease drilling territory near the
maritime border shared with Florida’s west coast.
It could be that the government simply does not want to, Pinon said, or
oil companies find drilling that deep to be too expensive. But the
indecision over ownership of the Eastern Gap has likely played a role.
Oil companies shy away from drilling near zones with border disputes due
to the possibility of an oil reservoir extending into that questionable
territory, Pinon said. Taking oil that does not have a clear owner could
create hostilities with other nations that could lay claim to it.
“You are talking $100 to $150 million to drill in deep waters,” Piñon
said. “No one will drill until borders are decided upon. Then it is open
Pinon predicts it will be five years before drilling begins there even
in a best-case scenario.
Still, Pinon said, “It is better to prepare now than react later.”
The Cuban government is well versed on drilling safety protocol, say
U.S. oil industry leaders and elected officials who have traveled to the
island nation to discuss this issue.
“But anytime you poke a hole in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico at
10,000 feet there will environmental risks,” Pinon said.
Florida learned that the hard way when Deepwater Horizon rig exploded
off Louisiana in 2010, Reps. Jolly and Castor said.
Castor says that’s is why she introduced the Florida Coastal Protection
Act that would make the moratorium permanent and extend it into the
Florida Straits and Florida’s Atlantic coast.
Jolly has sponsored a similar bill — the Preserving Florida’s Coastal
Communities Act that would extend the current moratorium through 2027.
Jolly says now is the time to push for further agreements with Cuba that
will ensure Florida is protected in the case of a spill in Cuban waters.
“I think there is opportunity to provide Cuba with the ability to
achieve energy independence through drilling and exploration without
doing it in an area we consider sensitive,” Jolly said.
Contact Paul Guzzo at email@example.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow
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