Cuba Drills for Oil off Florida; Deadlock Hurts U.S. Fuel Efforts

Article excerpt

Byline: Patrice Hill, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Cuba is drilling for oil 60 miles off the coast of Florida with help from China, Canada and Spain even as Congress struggles to end years of deadlock over drilling for what could be a treasure trove of offshore oil and gas.

Republicans in Congress have tried repeatedly in the past decade to open up the outer continental shelf to exploration, and Florida's waters hold some of the most promising prospects for major energy finds. Their efforts have been frustrated by opposition from Florida, California and environmental-minded legislators from both parties.

Florida's powerful tourism and booming real estate industries fear that oil spills could cost them business. Lawmakers from the state are so adamantly opposed to drilling that they have bid to extend the national ban on drilling activity from 100 miles to as far as 250 miles offshore, encompassing the island of Cuba.

Cuba is exploring in its half of the 90-mile-wide Straits of Florida within the internationally recognized boundary as well as in deep-water areas of the Gulf of Mexico. The impoverished communist nation is eager to receive any economic boost that would come from a major oil find.

"They think there's a lot of oil out there. We'll see," said Fadi Kabboul, a Venezuelan energy minister. He noted that the oil fields Cuba is plumbing do not respect national borders. Any oil Cuba finds and extracts could siphon off fuel that otherwise would be available to drillers off the Florida coast and oil-thirsty Americans.

Canadian companies Sherritt International Co. and Pebercan Inc. already are pumping more than 19,000 barrels of crude each day from the Santa Cruz, Puerto Escondido, Canasi and other offshore fields in the straits about 90 miles from Key West, and Spain's Repsol oil company has announced the discovery of "quality oil" in deep-water areas of the same region, the National Ocean Industries Association said.

Cuba's state oil company, Cubapetroleo, also has inked a deal with China's Sinopec to explore for oil, and it is using Chinese-made drilling equipment to conduct the exploration.

That compounds the frustration for U.S. oil companies and other businesses that have lobbied to open up the estimated 45 billion barrels in oil reserves and 232 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves in banned drilling areas of the Gulf - enough to fuel millions of cars and heat millions of homes for decades.

U.S. companies, which have the best deep-water equipment, cannot participate in the Cuban drilling because of the 45-year economic embargo against Fidel Castro's communist regime.

If oil is found in commercially viable quantities, Cuba could be transformed from an oil importer into an exporter, ending chronic energy shortages on the island and generating government revenue.

That prospect and the involvement of China and Venezuela in exploration activities have attracted the attention of the CIA and other national security agencies, even if congressional opposition to offshore drilling has not budged. …