Progress in international talks over who owns a piece of the Gulf of Mexico has raised the specter of a Deepwater Horizon tragedy along local shores.
A few hundred miles from the west coast of Florida is a 7,700-square-mile area of the Gulf of Mexico known as the Eastern Gap, thought to be rich with oil but with no clear owner.
The U.S., Cuban and Mexican governments are now negotiating how to split the area among the three nations. Once that happens, each country can drill for oil in its allotted portion.
But for Cuba, this could also open its entire side of the gulf for oil exploration, including the region directly on the other side of the maritime border from the Tampa Bay area.
This worries elected officials who support the current drilling moratorium that covers much of the U.S. side of the eastern gulf — including within 234 miles of Tampa Bay — that is meant to protect the area from spills.
"This is an issue of great concern, and I don't say that lightly," said Rep. David Jolly, a Pinellas County Republican.
Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, echoes Jolly's sentiment.
"We should do everything possible to prevent risky oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico," Castor said. "The hard lessons from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster will never be forgotten."
In April 2010, the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform off Louisiana claimed 11 lives and started the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history, releasing millions of barrels of oil into the gulf and devastating fish, wildlife and habitat along the Gulf Coast from the Florida Panhandle to Texas.
Under international law, a country has rights to any maritime resources within 200 miles of its coastline. But the Eastern Gap falls just outside that boundary for the United States, Cuba and Mexico.
Until the United States and Cuba resumed diplomatic relations a year ago, there was no legal foundation for negotiations over the Eastern Gap. Talks began in July.
The United States is expected to own 70 percent of the Eastern Gap. Mexico will likely receive 20 percent, none of which is connected to or faces Florida waters.
Cuba will probably own just 9 percent of the Eastern Gap, but because that portion faces and is connected to the west coast of Florida, it could greatly affect the Tampa Bay area, said Jorge Pinon, director of the Latin America and Caribbean Energy Program at the University of Texas.
"You need to look beyond that nine percent and the gap," he said. "It will open up the entire other side of the U.S. moratorium area's fence."
An estimated 5 billion to 20 billion barrels of oil and 8 billion cubic feet of natural gas lie beneath Cuban waters.
This energy source could be more important to Cuba than ever. Venezuela currently supplies Cuba with the bulk of its oil in a unique exchange for doctors and teachers. But as Venezuela's economy struggles, there is no telling how much longer it can support Cuba.
The Cuban government has yet to lease drilling territory near the maritime border shared with Florida's west coast.
It could be that the government simply does not want to, Pinon said, or oil companies find drilling that deep to be too expensive. But the indecision over ownership of the Eastern Gap has likely played a role.
Oil companies shy away from drilling near zones with border disputes due to the possibility of an oil reservoir extending into that questionable territory, Pinon said. Taking oil that does not have a clear owner could create hostilities with other nations that could lay claim to it.
"You are talking $100 to $150 million to drill in deep waters," Pinon said. "No one will drill until borders are decided upon. Then it is open for business."
Pinon predicts it will be five years before drilling begins there even in a best-case scenario.
Still, Pinon said, "It is better to prepare now than react later."
The Cuban government is well versed on drilling safety protocol, say U.S. oil industry leaders and elected officials who have traveled to the island nation to discuss this issue.
"But anytime you poke a hole in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico at 10,000 feet there will environmental risks," Pinon said.
Florida learned that the hard way with Deepwater Horizon explosion, Jolly and Castor said.
Castor says that's why she introduced the Florida Coastal Protection Act that would make the moratorium permanent and extend it into the Florida Straits and Florida's Atlantic coast.
Jolly has sponsored a similar bill, the Preserving Florida's Coastal Communities Act that would extend the current moratorium through 2027.
Jolly says now is the time to push for further agreements with Cuba that will ensure Florida is protected in the case of a spill in Cuban waters.
"I think there is opportunity to provide Cuba with the ability to achieve energy independence through drilling and exploration without doing it in an area we consider sensitive," Jolly said.
Contact Paul Guzzo at email@example.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.