U.S. signs agreements opening gulf to Cuba drilling, partnering on cleanups

In his last days in office, Obama signed an oil treaty regarding an area 200 miles off Florida.
Published January 20 2017
Updated January 24 2017

In its final days in the White House, the Obama administration made it easier for the Cuban government to drill for oil in gulf waters just beyond the country's maritime border with the United States.

It's the result of a treaty signed Wednesday that defines who controls a 7,700-square-mile area that begins just over 200 miles off the coast of Tampa Bay and Florida, long known as the Eastern Gap.

It is thought to be rich with oil but had no clear owner because it fell just beyond the maritime boundaries of the United States, Cuba and Mexico. The provisions of the treaty had been agreed upon under the Carter administration but were never formalized.

Cuba gets around 10 percent of the Eastern Gap. Past oil explorations in Cuban waters have come up dry, but the government has said it intends to look again. Cuba has invited drillers to lease around the gap area but had no takers — probably, analysts have said, because of uncertainty over who owns the gap.

Cuba has several steps to take before drilling can start in the gap. Blocks need to be leased, seismic exploration conducted, and accords signed that spell out what happens if an undersea oil reservoir extends from one nation's waters into another. All that could take a few years.

What's more, the Eastern Gap treaty still needs consent from a Republican-led Senate, not to mention review under the administration of President Donald Trump, said Robert Muse, a Washington, D.C.,-based attorney who deals with Cuba issues.

"This is questionable," Muse said. "It is also questionable whether Trump will ratify the treaty."

Trump has vowed to roll back Barack Obama's Cuba initiatives unless he gets a better deal from Cuban President Raul Castro.

The Obama administration also has been working with Cuba on limiting the damage an oil spill might cause, signing an agreement Jan. 9 to partner on preventing, containing and cleaning major spills.

"Good things come to America when its citizens band together to pursue a just cause," said Albert A. Fox Jr., founder and president of the Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy.

In 2010, Fox introduced U.S. oil and environmental leaders to the Cuban government. These Americans successfully lobbied the U.S. government to work with Cuba on the containment and cleanup protocol.

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.