By Lesley Clark | Miami Herald
Throwing a grenade into the fight over oil drilling off Florida’s coastline, Sen. Bill Nelson plans to announce today legislation that he says could prevent Cuba from drilling in its waters some 50 miles off Key West.
The Florida Democrat says his bill would block President Bush from renewing a 1977 international agreement that allows Cuba to conduct commercial activity in waters off its coast, near the Keys—unless the administration secures an agreement to prevent Cuba from putting oil rigs near Florida.
The legislation is likely to rile already testy U.S.-Cuban relations, and it was unclear late Thursday how the United States might enforce a ban on Cuban drilling for oil or natural gas in the Florida Straits if the agreement lapsed. However, according to a draft of the bill obtained by The Miami Herald, the legislation would seek to discourage foreign oil companies from drilling near Cuba by imposing sanctions against them.
But the legislation may be a tough sell: Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, who has teamed up with Nelson to fend off efforts to open Florida waters to offshore drilling by U.S. oil companies, said Thursday he has ‘‘some concerns’’ about Nelson’s proposal.
‘‘Sen. Martinez’s position is that this is a complex issue and it requires thoughtful and thorough deliberation,’’ Martinez spokesman Ken Lundberg said, adding that Martinez has talked about ‘‘potential remedies’’ to Cuban oil drilling with the State Department.
The effort to halt Cuban drilling comes as gas prices soar and a growing number of members of Congress cite Fidel Castro’s fledgling energy exploration program as justification for drilling near Florida.
They include Rep. John Peterson, a Pennsylvania Republican who wants to drill for natural gas within 20 miles of the U.S. coastline and who uses the Castro argument to press his point. And Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said this week he plans to introduce legislation that would allow U.S. companies to drill near Cuba—a provision that would require an exception to the embargo that bans most trade with the island nation.
Kirby Jones, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association—which promotes trade with Cuba and organized a February energy conference between Cuban government officials and U.S. companies interested in exploring Cuban waters—predicted the Cuban government will scoff at Nelson’s efforts.
‘‘They have an international treaty agreement that is signed. They have a similar agreement with Mexico and it’s existed for 29 years and everyone has operated under those boundaries,’’ Jones said. ‘Nelson coming along saying, ‘It’s against the law for Cuba to do X, Y or Z in its own waters?’ The Cubans will laugh at us.’‘
Cuba, which does not have the technology to conduct offshore drilling, has signed agreements with companies in several countries, including Repsol in Spain, Sherritt International Corp. in Canada and the Chinese energy giant Sinopac, to explore potential offshore oil and gas fields.
Some sectors come as close as 50 miles off Key West, and industry analysts have suggested there are at least 1.6 billion barrels of crude-oil reserves in the area. So far, the efforts have proved disappointing but they continue.
Nelson and Martinez are pushing for a drilling boundary no closer than 150 miles from the Florida Panhandle and about 260 miles from its west coast, arguing that drilling any closer to shore could imperil Florida’s tourist-dependent economy.
Nelson’s legislation would look to dampen foreign enthusiasm for drilling near Cuba by sanctioning executives of foreign oil companies.
According to the draft bill, the U.S. secretary of state could deny visas to oil company executives, curbing their ability to conduct business in the United States—in a move patterned after the Helms-Burton law that denies visas to executives of foreign companies that invest in properties seized by Cuba after the 1959 revolution.
‘‘It’s Sen. Nelson’s intention to do everything he can do to keep oil rigs away from the coast of Florida,’’ said Dan McLaughlin, a spokesman for Nelson, who is running for reelection this year.