1. News

Advocates of gulf oil-drilling ban worried by talks with Cuba

A Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico near the shores of Campeche. [Eunice Adorno/AFP/Getty Images (2006)]
Published Aug. 18, 2016

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.

Times map

Times map

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 or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.


  1. Officers arrived and helped treat the wounded man. Then he was rushed to a hospital.
  2. The Pinellas County Commission moved closer Tuesday to granting a total of $20.6 million to three museums: the Salvidor Dali Museum (top), the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center (bottom left), and the St. Petersburg Museum of History. Photos courtesy of Pinellas County
    The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg Museum of History and Tampa Bay Watch are on track to receive bed tax dollars for expansions.
  3. West Port Colony apartments in St. Petersburg C2 Design Group Inc, Chris Stevens
    The complex off Fourth Street N is convenient to both Tampa and downtown St. Petersburg.
  4. According to a forecast by PNC, business leaders feel sunny about the coming six months.
  5. Lithia Motors Inc. has acquired three dealerships from the Williams Automotive Group including Wesley Chapel Toyota near the Interstate 75 and State Road 54 interchange in Wesley Chapel. [Times (2007]
    Wesley Chapel Toyota, Wesley Chapel Honda and Tampa Honda dealerships change hands
  6. Sen. Travis Hutson presents his Job Growth Grant Fund legislation to the Senate Education Committee on Nov. 12, 2019. The Florida Channel
    The original version would have targeted charter schools only.
  7. Left: A burned Ford Taurus, found near Key Vista Nature Park, pictured in the Pasco County Sheriff's Office's forensics building. Right: 21-year-old Michael Psilakis, of Hudson, is accused of killing the unidentified man whose body was found in the car. Pasco County Sheriff's Office
    Michael Psilakis, of Hudson, faces first-degree murder and other charges. The victim has not been identified.
  8. A flag supporting President Donald Trump flutters near the University of Florida's Century Tower before an Oct. 10 appearance on campus by Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle. A controversy over the political nature of the event has led to calls for the impeachment of Student Body President Michael C. Murphy, who helped set it up. Courtesy of Chris Day
    A push to oust Student Body President Michael Murphy comes after an email surfaces, suggesting he worked with the Trump campaign to bring a political speech to campus.
  9. Tampa-based consumer data company Bridge is working to solve a specialty retailing problem that goes back to the end of Prohibition, and it’s getting help from venture capitalists at Florida Funders.
    Bridge specializes in providing detailed consumer data that helps producers of liquor, beer and wine target their advertising.
  10. Jacob "Jake" Weinert, 28, seen here holding his son Jasper in 2018, was killed Tuesday morning when a pickup truck struck him from him behind while he was riding on U.S. 301 in Tampa, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. Courtesy Izabel Sgie
    Jacob Weinert, a 28-year-old father of two, was struck by a pickup near Sligh Avenue, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.