- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2006

Allowing U.S. companies to explore the oil resources of Cuba would expand the nation’s energy sources, says Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican, who is pushing legislation to tap the petroleum potential of the Cuban coast.

“China, India, Norway, Canada and Spain have already bid and — in the cases of China, Spain and Canada — bought the rights to do exploratory drilling in the North Cuba Basin,” Mr. Craig said. “We should allow U.S. companies to do the same thing that other foreign oil companies around the world are doing: explore and build the infrastructure to sell oil in this region of Cuban waters.”

Mr. Craig, who introduced his Cuban oil bill yesterday, said he thinks he has bipartisan support in the Senate.

Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, introduced a companion bill in the House. He said he has three co-sponsors.

Mr. Craig said he has six co-sponsors in the Senate.

The bill would circumvent the U.S. embargo against Cuba and could open the door for more trade and business dealings with the communist island, but Mr. Flake said the debate should be about high gas prices and environmental concerns, not about Fidel Castro’s 47-year dictatorship.

“There will be some who want to tie this to the Cuba fight, but I think most will look at this more broadly and recognize that we cannot cripple our own energy competitiveness,” he said.

Cuban expatriate members of Congress oppose the bill, and members of the Florida delegation are adamant against drilling near their state’s coast.

The North Cuba Basin is a 1,000-square-mile region of the Florida Strait. Parts of the basin lie 50 miles from Key West.

“An oil spill 45 miles from Key West would go straight into the delicate coastal reefs and right up to the beaches of the western coasts. We cannot do this to Florida’s environment or the economy, and that is the bottom line,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican, said support for Mr. Craig’s measure is tantamount to supporting terrorism. “What takes precedence is the national security implications while we are fighting a war against terror,” he said.

“Why don’t we just go ahead and help North Korea or Iran with their economy?” asked Mr. Diaz-Balart, describing the Castro regime as “a nation with strong ties to terrorism.”

Mr. Craig said he expects resistance, but argued that it is folly to restrain U.S. companies when foreign oil firms are beginning to drill in Cuban waters.

“We are the best at oil drilling and have the best technology, so it is better for us to go in with the best safety practices than allow others with less experience do it,” Mr. Craig said.

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