Longtime U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, a proponent of increased oil and natural gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, says drilling may be coming near Florida's shores whether we like it or not.
"Cuba wants to let the Chinese drill in some of the very parts of the gulf that American producers are currently forbidden to touch, as close as 45 miles off the Florida coast," Stearns, R-Ocala, says on his campaign Web site.
Stearns' point — that if Cuba is going to drill anyway, why shouldn't we? — is obvious. But are his facts right?
First, some background. In 1977, Cuba and the United States negotiated maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Mexico and the waters south of the Florida Keys, called the Florida Straits, according to the U.S. Department of State. The boundaries, called Exclusive Economic Zones, give countries special rights of exploration and marine usage. Mexico, Cuba and the United States have EEZs in the gulf, and Cuba and the United States control the Florida Straits.
When it comes to oil, Cuba decides who drills in its EEZ and oil that may come from it — and the United States controls who can drill in its territory.
The United States currently bans drilling in much of the eastern Gulf of Mexico (including waters within 234 miles of Tampa Bay), and all of its portion of the Florida Straits. But last week, President Barack Obama proposed to open new areas to oil and gas exploration along the eastern seaboard south of New Jersey and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico within 125 miles of Florida's coast. U.S. drilling would still be banned in the Florida Straits. .
Now onto Cuba, the heart of Stearns' claim.
Cuba's maritime boundary in the Florida Straits extends to within 45 miles of the Keys, as Stearns suggests. Cuba has no drilling moratorium.
Its EEZ is broken down into 59 areas. In 2002, Cuba's state-run oil company, Cubapetroleo, started leasing individual areas to foreign oil companies in both the Florida Straits and the Gulf of Mexico for exploration.
So far, Cuba has leased 15 of the 59 areas, said Jorge Pinon, a former oil executive with Shell and Amoco who is an expert on Cuba's energy sector and a former energy fellow with the University of Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy. The waters closest to the United States have not yet been leased.
Who holds the rights to the areas? Oil and gas companies based in Spain, Norway, India, Malaysia, Venezuela, Vietnam and Brazil. But not China.
China has an onshore, land-based lease in Cuba but not an offshore lease, Pinon said.
A February 2008 analysis by the Congressional Research Service backs this up. "While there has been some concern about China's potential involvement in offshore deepwater oil projects," the report read, "to date its involvement in Cuba's oil sector has been focused on onshore oil extraction."
However, that could be changing. The China National Petroleum Corp. is negotiating a lease for four areas in the waters northwest of Cuba, Pinon said. The areas under negotiation are among those northwest of Cuba, farther away from the United States.
Is there drilling happening, now? "No," Pinon said.
Here's why: The decades-old embargo between the United States and Cuba makes oil production much more difficult for Cuba. Under terms of the embargo, Cuba would not be able to send its oil to the United States to be refined into gasoline and other petroleum products. And the companies drilling off Cuba's coast wouldn't be able to rely on American parts and machinery for drilling.
Trying to link China and Cuba when talking U.S. oil policy is nothing new. In 2008, then-Vice President Dick Cheney told directors of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that "oil is being drilled right now 60 miles off the coast of Florida. But we're not doing it, the Chinese are, in cooperation with the Cuban government."
Cheney, who said the information came from a column by George Will, later walked back his remarks. So did Will, as part of a correction.
Stearns' congressional office, realizing Cheney's misstatement, noted that Stearns said that "Cuba wants to let China" drill, not that China is drilling. The distinction is important. Spokesman Paul Flusche also said the information on Stearns' campaign Web site hasn't been updated since 2008, so the information could be out of date.
On this point, it really isn't.
Stearns said: "Cuba wants to let the Chinese drill in some of the very parts of the gulf that American producers are currently forbidden to touch, as close as 45 miles off the Florida coast."
Cuba is negotiating a lease with China for offshore oil exploration, but it's not in the "very parts of the gulf that American producers are currently forbidden to touch."
Still, he's right in suggesting Cuba could end up drilling closer to U.S. shores than America currently allows in its offshore waters.