Cuba’s plans to drill for oil south of Florida Keys has lawmakers scrambling POLL

This summer, Spanish oil giant Repsol could begin drilling an exploratory oil well off the northern coast of Cuba, some 20 miles north of Havana and 60 miles south of a point between Key West and the Marquesas Keys.

“I think it’s totally ridiculous that Cuba is about to drill for oil and we don’t have a plan for what to do in case of an emergency,” oil industry expert Jorge Piñon said. “To me, that’s totally asinine.”

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U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota

— Florida was on edge last summer as oil spewed from the blown out Deepwater Horizon well in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

This summer, Florida could be turning a wary eye in a different direction: south toward Cuba.

That’s when Spanish oil giant Repsol could begin drilling an exploratory oil well off the northern coast of Cuba, some 20 miles north of Havana and 60 miles south of a point between Key West and the Marquesas Keys, said oil industry expert Jorge Piñon, a visiting research fellow at the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami.

That’s closer than oil rigs can get to Florida under U.S. law, which prohibits rigs in U.S. waters within 125 miles of the Panhandle and keeps them as far as 250 miles away from the rest of the state’s shoreline.

Cuba’s plans risk leaving the United States hamstrung to respond to another oil calamity, this time on South Florida’s door step, Piñon said.

“I think it’s totally ridiculous that Cuba is about to drill for oil and we don’t have a plan for what to do in case of an emergency,” Piñon said. “To me, that’s totally asinine.”

During a stop in Southwest Florida last week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he is concerned about how drilling in Cuban waters could affect Florida.

Salazar said Repsol is briefing the Interior Department about what he called “potential drilling off Cuba.”

“We are monitoring what’s happening in Cuban waters carefully,” Salazar said.

So is Congress, where Florida lawmakers are scrambling to respond to Cuba’s plans.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, has introduced a bill that would give the Interior Department the power to reject oil and gas leases in U.S. waters to any company doing business with an embargoed nation, like Cuba.

Repsol has oil leases in the western Gulf of Mexico off Texas and Louisiana, according to U.S. Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, whose district includes eastern Collier County. Rivera is a co-sponsor of Buchanan’s bill.

U.S. Sen Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has introduced bills to deny visas and entry into the United States to executives of oil companies that want to drill in Cuba.

He also has tried unsuccessfully to convince the White House to drop a 1977 maritime boundary agreement with Cuba that was never ratified by the Senate but forms the basis of Cuba’s claims that it can drill for oil within 45 miles of Key West.

The rig will tap reserves off Cuba’s north coast, which the U.S. Geological Survey has estimated contains almost 5 billion barrels of oil.

Senator Bill Nelson on Newsmakers

Senator Bill Nelson on Newsmakers

Congressman Connie Mack, passes by a flag at VFW Memorial Post 7369 as he made a visit on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2010. Mack also presented the VFW with a U.S. flag flown over the U.S. Capitol. Greg Kahn/Staff

Photo by GREG KAHN

Congressman Connie Mack, passes by a flag at VFW Memorial Post 7369 as he made a visit on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2010. Mack also presented the VFW with a U.S. flag flown over the U.S. Capitol. Greg Kahn/Staff

U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fort Myers, issued a statement last week, saying that what other countries do in their waters “is their business.” “However, American business that supports the Castro dictatorship should not be permitted to do so,” the statement said.

Piñon said such legislative efforts miss the need to establish a protocol with Cuba to help it respond to an oil spill in its waters.

Nelson introduced a bill late last week that comes closer to that tack. It would require any company drilling in Cuban waters that wants to drill for oil or gas in U.S. waters to first prove they can respond to a “worst-case scenario oil discharge” in Cuba.

The bill also directs the Interior Department and Department of State to make recommendations to Congress about a multinational plan with Mexico, Cuba and the Bahamas to respond to oil spills beyond U.S. waters.

U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fort Myers, issued a statement last week, saying that what other countries do in their waters “is their business.”

“However, American business that supports the Castro dictatorship should not be permitted to do so,” the statement said.

Repsol plans to use an Italian-owned, Chinese-built rig to drill its exploratory well, Piñon said. The rig is undergoing sea trials in Singapore and could be delivered to Cuba in June or July, he said.

Piñon said it cost $700 million to build the rig, known as the Scarabeo 9, and Repsol is leasing it for $403,000 per day.

It will tap reserves off Cuba’s north coast, which the U.S. Geological Survey has estimated contains almost 5 billion barrels of oil.

Piñon said Repsol tapped the edge of the reserves in 2004, whetting the company’s appetite to come back, but difficulty working around the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba has slowed the company’s return.

A Washington, D.C.-based ocean advocate with ties to Cuba said the island nation’s 50 years of isolation has left it ill-prepared to respond to an oil spill.

“They’re starting from a dead stop,” said David Guggenheim, senior fellow at The Ocean Foundation and director of the Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program.

During the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Guggenheim said he was on the phone with scientists in Cuba to give them the latest predictions of the spill’s path. They were worried Gulf currents would wash the oil over pristine coral reefs off Cuba’s north coast, he said.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster was a vivid reminder about the importance of dialogue with nations that share the Gulf of Mexico, Guggenheim said.

“This is a neighborhood issue,” he said. “We all have to protect our neighborhood. We simply have to talk to our neighbors.”

When oil reserves were discovered off Cuba in 2004, Cuban scientists predicted that 90 percent of a catastrophic oil spill would be carried to the Florida Keys and up Florida’s east coast, Guggenheim said.

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Nelson’s bill would require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to conduct its own modeling of Cuban ocean currents.

“We know anything in that area could potentially come in our direction,” said Billy Causey, director of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Causey said Cuban scientists he has met at tri-national meetings with the U.S., Cuba and Mexico say they, too, are keeping an eye on Cuba’s drilling program.

“My faith is in the fact that there are people there that care about their resources as much as we do,” Causey said.

__ Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats

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