Russian oil rigs just 45 miles from Florida?

Cuba will allow Russia to look for oil and gas in its territorial waters. Environmentalists cringe, but the industry says its time for the US to look for more oil in the Gulf of Mexico, too.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Remember the Cuba Missile Crisis and the threat of Russian nukes 90 miles from Key West?

Now, there is the possibility of Russian oil rigs even closer, drilling in Cuban waters off the Gulf of Mexico.

Last week, the Cuban government announced it had signed contracts with Russia, allowing Russia to hunt for oil and natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico, perhaps as close as 45 miles from US shores.

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Environmental groups say it's a bad idea. But pro-oil drilling organizations think the Cuban proposal should send a message that if other nations are willing to open up their offshore waters, so should the US. And, it's prompted at least one Florida mayor to volunteer to go to Havana to talk about environmental concerns.

"It does present a dilemma for the US," says Wayne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington. "But, as long as it's in Cuba's economic zone, we may not like it but there is little we can do about it."

It may not just be Russian oil rigs heading for the tropics. Mr. Smith, a long time Cuba expert, says the Cubans are also talking to the Chinese and Brazilians.

This prospect has prompted Key West mayor Morgan McPherson to volunteer to go to Havana in the first US-Cuban exchange on the environment.

"I think it's important to create a dialogue," he says.

So far, Mr. McPherson says he has called the State Department who referred him to the Commerce Department who referred him back to the State Department.

"I got the Heisman," he says, referring to the statue of a stiff-armed football player.

However, he says he has heard from the Cubans who think it's a good idea. "Their economy is like our economy – centered around tourism – so they have as much at risk," he says.

But some environmental groups think the risk is too great. "It's hard for me to imagine that drilling that close to Florida's coast won't eventually mean oil spills washing up on Florida's shores," says Cat Lazaroff, a spokeswoman for Defenders of Wildlife in Washington.

Florida's US Senator Bill Nelson (D) and Gov. Charlie Crist (R) had no comment.

But the oil industry says it can do the job.

"We believe with the industry record the last 40 years, we can do it safely," says Dan Naatz, vice president for federal resources at the Independent Petroleum Association of America in Washington.

In 2004, the US Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that the mean amount of potential resources in the North Cuban basin was 4.5 billion barrels of oil and 9 to 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. By way of comparison Prudhoe Bay, the largest US discovery, on the north slope of Alaska originally had about 25 billion barrels of oil.

The US oil and gas industry is hoping the Cuban drilling causes the US to rethink its own policy in drilling in the eastern gulf of Mexico, an area the USGS estimates has 3.06 billion barrels of oil and over 11 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Last July former president Bush lifted the executive moratorium on drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. The Congress, which usually renewed the moratorium each year, let it expire.

But, in February, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, announced he was extending until Sept. 21 the period for public comment on a proposed five-year plan for drilling offshore.

Proponents of drilling maintain it would provide the Obama administration with a dramatic influx of $2.2 trillion in new revenue from royalties and taxes on profits. They estimate it would add 1 million new jobs as companies build new oil rigs and roughnecks get hired in Florida for the new rigs.

"It's a no-cost stimulus to the economy that we're leaving off the table," argues Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, which describes itself as a free-market energy think tank in Washington.

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