Florida Weekly


Is drilling 60 miles off the coast of Florida too close for comfort?



November 10, 2011



The greatest environmental catastrophe of our time — the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — is still fresh in our minds. After all, the explosion at the oil rig occurred in April of last year. And although the disaster was hundreds of miles from Southwest Florida’s shores, we easily could have been devastated both economically and environmentally.

We were lucky, however, because the actual impact was much less than it could have been. But we came perilously close to a major meltdown.

As is the case with most things of this nature, the BP disaster prompted a lot of discussion about the safety of drilling and how we, as a nation, should balance the need for energy and the demands of protecting the environment.

So, it seems more than odd that now a new drilling controversy has erupted, although few seem to know that it even exists.

The basic facts are this: The Chinese (with partners from Italy, Spain and Cuba) want to begin drilling for oil off the coast of Cuba – perilously close to Florida, a mere

60 miles from Key West.

Companies based in the United States, however, are banned from drilling anywhere within 125 miles of the coast.

“This is a mess, both from an environmental standpoint and a geopolitical standpoint,” says Mark Glavine, a former State Department official who specialized in international environmental issues. “The oil could be just what is needed to prop up the Castro regime financially. And we have no assurances that this consortium of various multinational companies will adhere to strict safety standards.”

According to reports from Cuba, the drilling rig would be built by the Chinese, owned by Italians and leased by the Spanish.

What so perplexes so many people is why the Obama administration is not fighting more vigorously to stop this venture.

“Truthfully, there is probably only so much (the administration) can do,” says Mr. Glavine. “But this sends an odd mixture of signals. Sometimes, you just have to make a symbolic show to make your point.”

“I have been causing grief to the State Department,” insists William Reilly, who headed the EPA under George H.W. Bush. Mr. Reilly has said that Cuba’s oil exploration is “something that’s very important to us, I think, given that they are drilling 60 miles off Key West, so I’ve asked to be invited to Cuba to talk about the report and have had my wrist slapped by the administration for raising the sensitive Cuban issue. I had to say, ‘I don’t work for you.’”

State officials have voiced apprehension about the proposed drilling.

“The concern I do have off the island of Cuba — the Chinese are in the process of putting rigs there, with support of the Cuban people, at least the Cuban government,” Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos said recently. “My guess is that (China and Cuba) probably don’t have the same environmental standards we do.”

Those who feel less threatened by the proposed drilling say it is time that we softened our stance toward Cuba, and others who would like to see more drilling — regardless of who is doing it — say we need energy from any source we can get it.

Proponents of the Cuban drilling say American oil companies could eventually profit from the deal. This could happen because the amount of oil is so vast, it is likely that, at some point, the resources of American oil giants will be needed to help the foreign companies who are operating so far from their home bases.

According to estimates from “Petroleumworld,” a trade publication, “there are anywhere between 5 and 20 billion barrels of recoverable oil in Cuba’s seabed.”

The publication also stated : “It will take years to develop this, and Americans are on paper the best placed to profit from this oil bonanza, as producers and consumers.”

While many fear the potential oil boom will prop up Castro’s regime and perhaps even turn Cuba into another Venezuela, where the dictator Hugo Chavez has long used his nation’s oil wealth to retain power, others are not so fearful.

“I’m no fan of the Castro regime,” writes Andres Cala, a writer specializing in energy matters. “But the embargo continues to be a useless firewall. And as exploratory drilling starts near Key West, Washington should be strategizing how to use this to America’s advantage. This is probably the best chance the U.S. has had since Fidel Castrol took over in 1959 to influence Cuban policy and its democratic future. And it’s also the best argument to finally overcome Florida’s banana republic politics to the benefit of American companies. Ending the embargo, at least gradually, would have bipartisan support, seconded by both environmental groups and oil companies.”

That may be an overly optimistic view. Cuba remains one of Florida’s hotbutton issues. Politicians like U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, who has announced his intention to run for the Senate, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio are hardliners who are unlikely to be swayed to a more conciliatory stance toward the Castro regime. (Attempts to reach Mr. Mack and Mr. Rubio for comment on this issue were unsuccessful.)

The arrival of the massive Chinese oil rig has been delayed. It was scheduled to arrive in Cuban waters in November, but it now appears it will be in place in late December. If that is the case, actual drilling could begin sometime in January. Cuban officials say the initial well will go down 5,600 feet. Cuba, according to its agreement with its foreign partners, will get about 60 percent of the oil that is found. That would equal about 131,000 barrels a day.

As things stand now, Cuba is heavily reliant on its fellow socialist state of Venezuela for much of its oil needs. It is estimated that Venezuela provides Cuba with about 92,000 barrels a day of oil. The uncertain health of Hugo Chavez, who is being treated for cancer, has Cuban officials sweating, however. What Venezuela will be like after Mr. Chavez is gone is a cause for great concern to the Cubans.

Thirty-four members of the U.S. House of Representatives have put the Cubans and their drilling partners on notice. In a letter to the Spanish firm Repsol, the members of congress noted that Repsol does business in the United States and that its alliance with Cuba could be a violation of U.S. law under the provisions of the Trading with the Enemy Act.

The U.S. Coast Guard will be allowed to inspect the rig in an effort to alleviate concerns about its safety and reliability. But even with that, environmentalist say it makes little sense to allow foreign drillers to operate at roughly 60 miles from the Florida coast, while American companies must observe a limit of 125 miles.

As one news report observed, if there is a blowout similar to the BP disaster in the Cuban drilling zone, Florida will be “doused” with oil.

When oil is discovered, it will take at least three years for production to begin. And if there is an environmental disaster along the lines of the BP spill, just 60 miles from Florida’s shore, it will take the state decades to recover. Even more frightening is the fact that no one can guarantee with any certainty that the state would ever recover.

Indeed, this is a strange story by any standard.