WASHINGTON — With Cuba poised to drill for oil off its coast as early as this spring, Florida lawmakers are renewing efforts to block it, citing fears about damage to the state's beaches in the event of a major oil spill.
Sarasota Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan introduced legislation to allow the U.S. Interior Department to deny oil and gas leases to companies involved in Cuba's oil drilling operations. Sen. Bill Nelson plans to reintroduce legislation to pull the visas for executives of such companies. Nelson also is hoping to "outline our position'' in a yet-to-be-scheduled meeting with officials from the Spanish energy giant, Repsol, which is working with Cuba.
Buchanan, a staunch opponent of drilling off Florida's coast, said he worries Cuba doesn't have the expertise to contain a spill. He said he has bipartisan support for his efforts, even among lawmakers who have pushed to relax some restrictions against Cuba.
"We have no drilling 230 miles off our coast," Buchanan said, referring to law that keeps rigs at least that far off Tampa Bay. "So why in the world would we want Cuba drilling within 50 miles?"
The House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, also backs legislation to deny visas and impose export sanctions and other penalties on companies involved in Cuba's operations, noting "some deeply troubling drilling partnerships have already been established'' and others are under way.
"We need to make sure the pressure stays on to keep these deals from happening so that we can protect our shores from a potential Cuban oil-drilling disaster," she said.
Environmentalists and others knowledgeable with Cuba's plans suggest the United States should instead develop an emergency response agreement with its Cold War nemesis, against whom it has enforced a five-decades-old trade embargo.
"The rational approach is a direct dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba," said David Guggenheim, a senior fellow at the Ocean Foundation in Washington.
Noting that he spoke with Cuban officials worried about damage to the island's coral reefs during last summer's BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Guggenheim added, "If any country should be demonized in this context, perhaps it should be the one that unleashed the largest gulf spill of all time."
The renewed push for legislation that seeks to dampen global interest in Cuba's offshore industry comes as a semisubmersible rig is being readied in Singapore for use in Cuba. Repsol, which drilled an exploratory well in 2004 off the coast near Havana, has contracted to drill the first of several exploratory wells. Other countries have also expressed interest in drilling in Cuba.
The Interior Department and the White House declined to comment on Buchanan's legislation.
A spokesman for Repsol said the company had no comment, but noted that its plans for 2011 include one well in Cuba, as well as one offshore and two onshore rigs in the United States.
Buchanan said his legislation would force Repsol "to make a choice — Cuba or the U.S." He noted that Repsol "scrapped'' plans to build a gas development plant in Iran amid U.S. pressure.
But Jorge Piñon, an energy expert and visiting research fellow at Florida International University's Cuban Research Institute, argued that the legislation could put the United States at odds with countries that drill here and are interested in Cuba, including Brazil and Norway.
"The question to ask is, 'Does the company that's going to drill have a respectable record of environmental stewardship and does it have the know-how?' " Piñon said. "And the answer is yes. I'm not concerned with Cuba drilling for oil; I'm very concerned we don't have an emergency plan in case of a spill."
Guggenheim noted that the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill recommended last month that the United States enter into a cooperative spill response agreement with Cuba.
Former Florida Gov. Bob Graham, who co-chaired the commission, said such an agreement wouldn't be "a capitulation to Castro; rather it is something in our self-interest to ensure that anything that relates to drilling has high safety standards."
Repsol is expected to drill to 5,600 feet — deeper than the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Up for exploration is an area about 22 miles north of Havana and 65 miles south of the Marquesas Keys.
Previous efforts to derail Cuba's program have failed: Both the Bush and Obama administrations rejected Nelson's calls to pressure the Cuban government by withdrawing from a 1977 maritime boundary agreement.
A leading embargo supporter suggests Havana is touting its oil reserves in hopes of rallying support for easing the embargo. The embargo already affects the oil program: The country had to secure a rig that didn't violate the law, which prevents vessels with more than 10 percent U.S. parts from operating in Cuba.
"This is part of a decade-long propaganda campaign by the regime in order to secure the oil industry's support for joining the lobby against the embargo," said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of a leading pro-embargo lobby, the U.S. Cuba Democracy political action committee. He notes that Cuba lacks capacity for refining crude oil.
"We've been through this before," Claver-Carone said of reports Cuba is ready to drill. "It's the little boy who cried wolf."