Friday, January 05, 2007

Keys fear disaster if Cuba taps nearby oil

Palm Beach Post-Cox News Service

Monday, January 01, 2007

KEY LARGO — The pelicans gather each afternoon, cute, gawky and hungry. They flap and flop awkwardly among the mangrove roots as Juan Leon, a worker at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center, tosses them fish to supplement their natural diet.

"We feed them because the natural fish population isn't what it should be," said Bruce Horn, who heads the center, which helps rescue injured and sick birds. "Our environment here is very fragile."

That's why Horn and other residents of this vacation paradise are worried about news that the Cuban government has struck oil just a few dozen miles from this environmentally sensitive string of islands.

"That's absolutely scary," Horn says. "The Keys don't have sandy beaches, and you couldn't just scoop up oil if there was a spill. If it got into the mangrove roots, it would be disastrous."

Experts say the size of Cuba's offshore oil deposits is still in question, but the potential is impressive. A U.S. Geological Survey study estimates that a curving belt of ocean floor north of Cuba may contain at least 4.5 billion barrels of oil and nearly 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

In contrast, an area in U.S. waters about 200 miles west of Tampa that Congress just approved for drilling is believed to hold about 1.3 billion barrels of oil and 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The United States uses about 21 million barrels of oil a day.

For impoverished Cuba, the oil prospects are dazzling, and Fidel Castro's government has wasted no time in pushing to develop the fields. The region has been divided into 59 exploration blocks, and Cuba has signed deals with foreign oil firms to begin drilling in earnest.

One well that the Spanish oil company Repsol-YPF sank already has found oil, but not in commercially viable quantities.

"But it was enough that Norway's Norsk Hydro acquired a 30 percent stake," said Jorge Pinon, a former oil company executive who is now a research associate at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.

"Norsk Hydro wouldn't go to Cuba for political purposes," Pinon said. "They are one of the best deepwater drilling companies in the world, and if they are going in, it is likely this will be viable."

Cuba has signed other oil deals with firms from Venezuela, India, China and Canada, a clear sign that a Cuban oil boom is brewing. But Pinon says it will be several years before the offshore Cuban operations crank into high gear because of soaring demand around the world for the limited number of deepwater rigs.

The activity has piqued the interest of U.S. lawmakers. Competing bills were introduced in Congress this year, with supporters of the U.S. embargo against Cuba proposing to deny visas to foreign oil workers headed to Cuba. Their opponents introduced a bill that would exempt U.S. firms from the embargo and allow them to participate in the Cuban oil rush.

"At risk are the Florida Keys and the state's tourism economy, not to mention the $8 billion that Congress is investing to restore the Everglades," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., one of the sponsors of the bill aiming to limit the Cuban drilling.

Neither bill passed, but the issue seems certain to come up again.

Embargo opponents hope that the new Congress, which Democrats will run for the first time in more than a decade, will ease the trade and travel restrictions and allow U.S. participation. The Cuban government has sought bids from American oil firms.

"This is a product the U.S. needs," said Kirby Jones, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association, a group seeking to break the embargo. "If we maintain the embargo, it says we don't need that oil and it's OK for India, Canada, Spain and these other countries to take it."

With some of the Cuban exploration blocks just 50 miles from Key West, many Keys residents would prefer no drilling at all. Short of that, they would rather have American companies involved.

"My concern is that these other companies may not have the safety precautions that U.S. companies follow," said Joe Angelo, manager of Ocean Divers, a scuba diving outfit in Key Largo. "A spill would wipe us out."

The Cuban exploration is tied to a 1977 treaty that the United States and Cuba signed setting the offshore boundary between the countries. The line runs roughly down the center of the Florida Straits, a channel that is about 100 miles wide and separates Cuba from the Florida Keys.

The Keys are home to a huge coral reef, an underwater formation rich in marine life. State and federal parks and reserves already protect much of the reef, and it has spawned a thriving tourism industry catering to scuba divers, fishermen and offshore sightseers.

But the Keys are not the only Florida area at risk.

Ocean currents that run like rivers in the sea carry water from the Gulf of Mexico through the Florida Straits and up Florida's east coast.

"Any spill in the eastern gulf can wind up putting materials into the current and then onto the east coast of Florida," said Robert Weisberg, an oceanographer and ocean current expert at the University of South Florida. "The current is always there, and the risk is real."

But even without a major spill, Keys environmentalists say, oil drilling and fragile reefs shouldn't mix.

"Routine operations can be devastating because of the chronic daily discharge of drilling mud that carries heavy metals and other toxic materials," said DeeVon Quirolo, founder of Reef Relief, one of the Keys' oldest environmental groups. "It poses a grave threat not only to Florida's reefs but also to the reefs along the Cuban coast."

Although Cuba has benefited lately from a deal in which Venezuela is providing oil and gas at a discounted price, it seems clear that the communist island will continue the drive to secure its own offshore oil supplies.

Keys residents, already threatened by hurricanes and rapid development that is degrading water quality, figure the Cuban oil rush will be one more risk they must face.

"The reefs are the only way people have to make money here," said Jessica Dombrowski, who works at Key Largo Watersports, where tourists rent boats and water scooters. "This is the scuba diving capital of the U.S. If they kill the reef, they kill the Keys."

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