- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Congressional proponents of oil and gas drilling are pointing to Cuba’s exploration off the coast of Florida — with help from China — as a prime reason to open up U.S. drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

But Florida legislators continue to resist, and some of them are trying to stop Cuba’s activities by pushing to rescind a 1977 treaty dividing the Straits of Florida halfway between the two countries.

The Bush administration, with an eye toward the pivotal role Florida has played in presidential politics and out of solidarity with President Bush’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has largely sided with Florida in the dispute. It supports only very limited drilling off the coast of Florida, as would be permitted under a bill pending in the Senate.

“American politics today — it is the no-drill zone,” said Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican.

“We sit here watching China exploit a valuable resource within eyesight of the U.S. coast,” he said, noting that one 2005 U.S. Geological Survey estimated the North Cuba Basin may contain as much oil as the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve in Alaska.

“I am certain the American public would be shocked, as this country is trying to reduce our dependency on Middle East oil, that countries like China are realizing this energy resource,” Mr. Craig said.

“This is a pocketbook issue, not a political issue. Whole regions of the Gulf are not available for drilling today,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, who has sought to find ways to expand exploration in the Gulf of Mexico.

“What is happening? Fidel Castro in Cuba is partnering with China and is moving forward. … He can drill, but we cannot. He can take the money and fund his adventures around South and Central America. … Is that what people would like to see?”

Congressional policies since the 1970s have fostered fuel consumption, he said, but at the same time prohibit further drilling domestically for the sake of the environment.

The result has been growing dependence on oil imports, which now provide more than half the fuel Americans use, although legislators routinely denounce the nation’s reliance on “foreign oil” when they renew the ban on domestic drilling.

The Senate this week is expected to try one more time to break the impasse over drilling in the eastern Gulf with a bill that would open up a key tract to exploration but provide a 125-mile no-drilling buffer zone for Florida.

News last winter that Cuba has hopes of finding commercially viable reserves of oil in the Straits of Florida helped to nudge Florida’s senators toward endorsing the Senate bill after years of opposing any drilling at all, congressional aides said. But Florida legislators in Congress continue to oppose any broad new exploration activities in state waters.

Mr. Craig said drilling advocates sought to alert Congress this spring to Cuba’s activities. But rather than reconsider the U.S. drilling ban, he said, drilling opponents dug in their heels and tried to stop Cuba, too.

“Do we want to emulate the actions of nations like Cuba and China? Do we want the Florida Straits dotted with oil rigs?” asked Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Florida Democrat. “I think not.”

Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, introduced legislation to prevent the Bush administration from renewing a maritime treaty that enables Cuba to conduct commercial activities in its half of the Straits — unless the administration gets an agreement that prevents Cuba from putting oil rigs close to Florida.

Story Continues →