NAPLES, Fla. — Florida was on edge last summer as oil spewed from the blown out Deepwater Horizon well in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
This summer, Florida could turn a wary eye in a different direction: south toward Cuba.
That's when Spanish oil giant Repsol could begin drilling an exploratory oil well off the northern coast of Cuba, some 20 miles north of Havana and 60 miles south of a point between Key West and the Marquesas Keys, said oil industry expert Jorge Pinon, a visiting research fellow at the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami.
That's closer than oil rigs can get to Florida under U.S. law, which prohibits rigs in U.S. waters within 125 miles of the Panhandle and keeps them as far as 250 miles away from the rest of the state's shoreline.
Cuba's plans risk leaving the United States hamstrung to respond to another oil calamity, this time on South Florida's doorstep, Pinon said.
"I think it's totally ridiculous that Cuba is about to drill for oil and we don't have a plan for what to do in case of an emergency," Pinon said.
During a stop in Southwest Florida last week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he is concerned about how drilling in Cuban waters could affect Florida.
Salazar said Repsol is briefing the Interior Department about what he called "potential drilling off Cuba" and, "We are monitoring what's happening in Cuban waters carefully."
Florida lawmakers are scrambling to respond to Cuba's plans.
Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., has introduced a bill that would give the Interior Department power to reject oil and gas leases in U.S. waters to any company doing business with an embargoed nation, like Cuba.
Repsol has oil leases in the western Gulf of Mexico off Texas and Louisiana, according to Rep. David Rivera, R-Fla., a co-sponsor of Buchanan's bill.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has introduced bills to deny visas and entry into the United States to executives of oil companies that want to drill in Cuba.
He also has tried unsuccessfully to convince the White House to drop a 1977 maritime boundary agreement with Cuba that was never ratified by the Senate but forms the basis of Cuba's claims that it can drill for oil within 45 miles of Key West.
Pinon said such legislative efforts miss the need to establish a protocol with Cuba to help it respond to an oil spill in its waters.
Nelson introduced a bill late last week that comes closer to that tack. It would require any company drilling in Cuban waters that wants to drill for oil or gas in U.S. waters to first prove they can respond to a "worst-case scenario oil discharge" in Cuba.
Repsol plans to use an Italian-owned, Chinese-built rig to drill its exploratory well, Pinon said. The rig is undergoing sea trials in Singapore and could be delivered to Cuba in June or July, he said.
The rig will tap reserves off Cuba's north coast, which the U.S. Geological Survey has estimated contains almost 5 billion barrels of oil.