By William E. Gibson | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Sen. Mel Martinez introduced a bill on Wednesday that would punish foreign companies and investors who help Cuba drill for oil and natural gas near the shores of Key West.
Martinez, a Republican, and Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, are trying to fend off another bill also introduced on Wednesday that would allow oil rigs as close as 45 miles from the Florida coast and ease the U.S. embargo so that American companies can drill in Cuban waters.
The Florida senators strongly oppose expanded offshore drilling for fear it would lead to spills that pollute beaches, damage marine life and jeopardize tourism. They also oppose Cuban drilling because oil riches would bolster the Fidel Castro government.
To counter the drilling bill, Martinez introduced one of his own that would deny U.S. travel visas to any foreign person or company who supports Cuba’s oil program. And it would impose unspecified penalties on anyone who invests more than $1 million to develop Cuban oil and gas resources.
“This bill sends a clear message that any attempt to develop Cuba’s oil exploration program will be met with strong sanctions,” Martinez said. “Supporting the Castro regime in the development of its petroleum is detrimental to U.S. policy and our national security.”
The exchange of legislation revives an intense debate over offshore drilling, which appeared to be settled last year with passage of an energy bill that prohibited drilling within 125 miles of Florida shores.
Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said last year’s energy bill did not do enough to conserve fuel or expand domestic oil and gas production to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign supplies. The bill they filed on Wednesday calls for tougher fuel-efficiency standards as well as domestic production closer to shore.
While Congress grapples over energy issues, Cuba has contracted with companies from Canada, China and other countries to explore for oil along its north coast near the Straits of Florida. Craig contends that American companies should be allowed to compete for those contracts, partly because they are more likely than foreign drillers to use modern methods that avoid environmental damage.
Craig and Dorgan noted that drilling 45 miles from shore would be out of sight from land. Florida leaders, however, fear that an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or north of Cuba would flow with the Gulf Stream along the Florida Keys and up the southeast Florida coast.
The legislative exchange appeared to be opening salvos in a new energy debate that may take months to resolve.