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Concern Grows Over Plan to Drill for Oil Near Florida Keys

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The news that the Spanish oil giant, Repsol, intends to begin exploratory drilling in the waters directly north of Cuba, has set off a chorus of criticism in Cuba's neighbor to the north: the United States.

Repsol, which has a presence in more than 35 countries, has announced that an immense, semi-submersible oil rig constructed by the Italian company Saipem, is currently speeding its way from Singapore to the Florida Straits between Key West and Cuba, with a goal of beginning exploratory drilling sometime in December.

With analysts believing that Cuba's coastal waters may contain up to 20 billion barrels of oil, Repsol -- which also drilled offshore in Cuba in 2004 -- is set to partner with Norway's Statoil and India's ONGC in the drilling of a pair of wells as per an agreement with the Cuban government.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, with memories throughout the region still fresh with images of the April 2010 explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf Of Mexico, there has been an outcry at Repsol's plans.

The Deepwater Horizon incident killed 11 workers and loosed a gusher of oil that leaked an estimated 53,000 barrels a day into the Gulf for three months, fouling beaches in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and killing fish and wildlife.

Following a 17-month investigation, a report last month on the disaster issued by the the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement leveled withering criticism at well owner and operator BP, rig owner Transocean Ltd. and cementing operator Halliburton Co.

"From the Deepwater Horizon incident, we have seen clearly that deepwater offshore drilling is inherently risky," says Dr. Susan D. Shaw, director of the Maine-based Marine Environmental Research Institute. "Even in U.S. waters with the resources, infrastructure and equipment that we have, we watched a massive failure on many counts."

In a rare moment of bipartisanship in the rancorous U.S. political landscape, a Sept. 28 letter to Repsol by 34 members of the U.S. Congress -- including the Cuban-born Republican chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz -- wrote that the "oil drilling scheme endangers the environment, and enriches the Cuban tyranny" and urged the company to "walk away from the project."

The U.S. maintains a trade embargo with Cuba, and Cuban-Americans make up a powerful voting bloc in the state of Florida, which counts for 27 electoral votes in the U.S.'s electoral college system.

Political considerations aside, however, it is the patch of sea where Repsol proposes to work that has caused the most concern.

The location of the proposed drilling is only 65 miles from the Marquesas Keys, an uninhabited group of islands near Key West, in an area of strong 4-6 mile per hour currents that come from the Gulf of Mexico, shoot through the Florida Straits and then churn northwards up the Atlantic Coast of the continental U.S.

A wide swath of protected areas could be threatened, including the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary -- which spans some 2,800-square-nautical-miles and includes important repositories of coral reefs, seagrass and 1,600 miles of mangrove shoreline -- and Biscayne National Park, an area that contains the beginning of the third-largest coral reef in the world and mangrove areas along its shore. The million-plus acre Everglades National Park -- a subtropical wilderness that has famously been described as a "river of grass" -- is also nearby.

"It's such an ecologically rich area that any oil in the marine environment could seriously impact the entire ecosystem," asserts Daniel O. Suman, professor of marine affairs and policy at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

Repsol's safety record could best be described as mixed.

In February 2008, a spill by the company let free an estimated 100 barrels of crude near the 2.4 million-acre Yasuni National Park in Ecuador. The park, home to populations of jaguars, harpy eagles and other fauna, is also the ancestral home of the Huaorani people, the region's native inhabitants. This was followed by another spill in Ecuador in February 2009. In December 2010, a Repsol petrol platform in Nigeria's Ebro Delta region spilled 180,000 litres of crude into the ocean off that country's coast.

On its website, Repsol -- which did not respond to requests for comment -- states that the drilling equipment to be used "complies with all the technical requirements and all the limitations established by the US administration for drilling operations in Cuba."

Residents of the Florida Keys -- one of the more beguiling corners of the United States with its vistas of blue-green ocean water and endless sky -- remain apprehensive.

"We're very concerned," says Key West mayor Craig Cates. "And because of the embargo (with Cuba) we can't even send any equipment over if anything starts leaking. We just have to wait until it gets into our waters. "

This article was first published in slightly different form in collaboration with Panos Caribbean.

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