"Cuba wants to let the Chinese drill in some of the very parts of the gulf that American producers are currently forbidden to touch, as close as 45 miles off the Florida coast."

Cliff Stearns on Tuesday, March 30th, 2010 in a statement on his campaign Web site.


U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns says Cuba and China are partnering to drill for oil off Florida's coast

Longtime Ocala U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, a proponent of increased oil and natural gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, says drilling may be coming near Florida's shores whether we like it or not.

"Cuba wants to let the Chinese drill in some of the very parts of the gulf that American producers are currently forbidden to touch, as close as 45 miles off the Florida coast," Stearns says on his campaign Web site.

Stearns' point -- that if Cuba is going to drill anyway, why shouldn't we -- is obvious.

But are his facts right?

First some background. In 1977, Cuba and the United States negotiated maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Mexico and the waters south of the Florida Keys, called the Florida Straits, according to the U.S. Department of State. The boundaries, called Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), give countries special rights of exploration and marine usage. Mexico, Cuba and the United States all have Exclusive Economic Zones in the Gulf of Mexico, and Cuba and the United States control the Florida Straits. You can see a map of the boundaries here.

When it comes to oil, Cuba decides who drills in its EEZ -- and the money and oil that may come from it -- and the United States controls who can drill in its territory.

The United States currently bans drilling in much of the eastern Gulf of Mexico (including waters within 234 miles of Tampa Bay, and 300 miles from Naples), and all of its portion of the Florida Straits. But on March 31, 2010, President Barack Obama proposed to open new areas to oil and gas exploration along the eastern seaboard south of New Jersey and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico within 125 miles of Florida's coast. U.S. drilling would still be banned in the Florida Straits under Obama's proposal.

Now onto Cuba, the heart of Stearns' claim.

Cuba's maritime boundary in the Florida Straits extends to within 45 miles of the Florida Keys, as Stearns suggests. Cuba, unlike the United States, has no drilling moratorium.

Its EEZ includes a total of 74,000 square miles, and is broken down by the country into 59 areas. In 2002, Cuba's state-run oil company, Cubapetroleo (often called Cupet), started leasing individual areas to foreign oil companies in both the Florida Straits and the Gulf of Mexico for exploration.

So far, Cuba has leased 15 of the 59 areas, said Jorge Pinon, a former oil executive with Shell and Amoco who is an expert on Cuba's energy sector and a former energy fellow with the University of Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy. The areas leased include the waters just north and to the northwest of Cuba. The waters closest to the United States have not yet been leased.

Who holds the rights to the areas?

Oil and gas companies based in Spain, Norway, India, Malaysia, Venezuela, Vietnam and Brazil. But not China.

China has an onshore, land-based lease in Cuba but not an offshore lease, Pinon said.

A February 2008 analysis by the Congressional Research Service backs this up. "While there has been some concern about China's potential involvement in offshore deepwater oil projects," the report read, "to date its involvement in Cuba's oil sector has been focused on onshore oil extraction in Pinar del Rio province through its state-run China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation."

However, that could be changing. The China National Petroleum Corporation is negotiating a lease for four areas in the waters northwest of Cuba, Pinon said. The areas under negotiation are among those northwest of Cuba, farther away from the United States.

Is there drilling happening, now?

"No," Pinon said.

Here's why: The decades-old embargo between the United States and Cuba makes oil production much more difficult for Cuba (which now imports about two-thirds of its oil from Venezuela). Under terms of the embargo, Cuba would not be able to send its oil to the United States to be refined into gasoline and other petroleum products. And the companies drilling off Cuba's coast wouldn't be able to rely on American parts and machinery for drilling.

"Cuba doesn't have refinery capacity," Pinon said. "That oil should come to the U.S. gulf coast where we have refineries where we can process that crude oil. But the embargo doesn't allow that."

Trying to linking China and Cuba when talking U.S. oil policy is nothing new. In 2008, then-Vice President Dick Cheney told the board of directors of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that "oil is being drilled right now 60 miles off the coast of Florida. But we're not doing it, the Chinese are, in cooperation with the Cuban government. Even the communists have figured out that a good answer to high prices is more supply."

Cheney, who said the information came from a column by George Will, later walked back his remarks. So did Will, as part of a correction.

Stearns' Congressional office, realizing Cheney's misstatement, noted that Stearns said that "Cuba wants to let China" drill, not that China is drilling. The distinction is important. Spokesman Paul Flusche also said the information on Stearns' campaign Web site hasn't been updated since 2008, so the information could be out of date.

On this point, it really isn't.

Stearns' statement, when it comes to specifics, is a little sloppy. He said: "Cuba wants to let the Chinese drill in some of the very parts of the gulf that American producers are currently forbidden to touch, as close as 45 miles off the Florida coast."

Cuba is negotiating a lease with China for offshore oil exploration, but it's not in the "very parts of the gulf that American producers are currently forbidden to touch." Cuba controls its own offshore, just like the United States. And the Chinese lease wouldn't be 45 miles from the Florida coast. The areas closest to the United States haven't been leased yet. But he's right in suggesting that Cuba could end up drilling closer to U.S. shores than America currently allows in its offshore waters. We rate his claim Half True.



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