TALLAHASSEE — The next big oil spill to threaten Florida could come less than 50 miles off the coast of Miami in Cuban waters, where 14 wells are expected to be tapped within the next two years, former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham warned in a speech here Friday.
Cuba is preparing to drill the wells off its north coast, using a Russian oil drilling firm "which frankly does not have a world standard safety record," Graham told the Economic Club of Florida.
To avoid a spill the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which could flow into the Gulfstream and up Florida's east coast, Graham said, the United States should join with Mexico to establish international safety standards for any future oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
Mexico, meanwhile, should continue to negotiate with Cuba to impose strict standards as well, he said.
"This is not a capitulation to Castro; rather, it is something in our self-interest to ensure that anything that relates to drilling have high safety standards," he said after the speech.
Graham, co-chair of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, said a political shift over the future of oil drilling has occurred in Florida. But he warned that while the state didn't reap the profits from the offshore oil drilling that led to the blowout, it bore the most economic damage.
That, he said, should be considered "a wakeup call."
With so much at stake, Florida should lead a coalition of non-producing partners to demand higher safety standards, tougher government regulation, better self-policing and more research into the science of oil spill damage, as recommended by the report, Graham said.
"We're sort of the downstream when folks upstream put things in the water," he said. ''Nobody has got a greater stake in this industry operating in a safe manner and being prepared to respond to an accident than does the state of Florida."
Before his speech, Graham briefed Gov. Rick Scott on the 400-page report produced by the commission for President Barack Obama, and urged him to be a vocal advocate for protecting Florida.
Scott commended Graham for the report that blames the spill on a failed culture of safety at BP, Halliburton and Transocean, and a failure of government regulation.
"We're going to look over this," Scott said after meeting with Graham. "As you know, both of us care about this great state and we don't want any damage, either environmental or economic damage, to happen anymore. We want to make sure we are also treated fairly."
Scott supports oil drilling off Florida's coast as long as it is done safely. Graham is a long-time opponent of drilling in both state and federal waters off Florida shores.
"I don't know what the governor's position is on this," Graham said as he stood next to Scott before television cameras. "If I could, I just ask him to keep an open mind and consider all the aspects of it."
Scott said he agrees that "neither of us want any drilling unless we are very comfortable it's going to be safe. We can't afford the environmental damage or the economic damage to our state."
Graham said the oil disaster has renewed his admiration for the so-called Pork Choppers, a band of North Florida conservatives who ruled Florida through the 1940s and 1950s. While neighboring gulf states were opening their doors and coffers to oil drilling, the Pork Choppers worked together to ban drilling off Florida shores, he said, "because we have more important values in Florida than extraction of our mutual waters."
Until recently, that attitude has dominated Florida politics, Graham said. Not anymore.
"We see there's been a shift in the political winds of Florida on this issue," he said.
A recent proposal to drill off Florida's coasts has revived the question he thought had been put to rest 40 years ago: Is Florida for sale?
"For two-thirds of the 20th century, Florida was defined as a commodity," Graham said after the speech. "If you thought it was too wet, you filled it in. If you thought it was too dry, you dug it up and you packaged it and sold it."
In the 1960s, environmentalists and civic activists urged people to stop thinking of Florida as a commodity and start thinking of it "as a treasure," he said.
"That's the battle that many of us thought was settled and which has now re-emerged. It is now one, if not the, central issue of Florida politics."