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Extraction of Cuban oil in the sea would affect in a future the South Florida
This could happen, as Havana is inviting foreign companies to explore its probable oil and natural gas reserves while Washington's embargo against the communist-led island keeps U.S. companies locked out.

South Florida is watching closely amid debate over drilling near its shores and concerns about U.S. energy policy. Oil companies increasingly seek to tap Cuba's deep-water reserves now that oil prices are soaring and profits are more likely.

"In 34 years following Cuba, I've never seen an issue like this " so strategically important to the United States," said Kirby Jones, president of Washington-based Alamar Associates, who advises U.S. companies on Cuba and opposes the U.S. embargo.

Cuba is courting oil investors to slash its dependence on foreign fuels. The cash-strapped island can't afford to import all it needs, especially with today's oil prices topping $100 a barrel. The island long relied on the Soviet Union for subsidized oil and now depends on cheap supplies from Venezuela that it pays for with services from its doctors and other professionals.

Havana began opening to foreign investment in the early 1990s after the loss of Soviet aid, and Cuba now produces almost half the oil and natural gas it consumes. It drills mainly for heavy crude on or near shore with help from Canadian companies.

But the big prize lies in deep-water reservoirs miles off the north shore in the Gulf of Mexico. By some estimates, the area holds almost as much oil and natural gas as the coveted Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska " enough to meet Cuban demand for years.

Havana is forging deals with companies from Norway, Malaysia, India, Vietnam, Spain and other nations to explore dozens of its 59 deep-water blocks. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva visited in January to seal contracts for Petrobras, the global leader in deep-water drilling.

Analysts say it will take several more years and hundreds of millions of dollars for the companies to figure out where to drill in waters often a mile deep.

But if the pieces fall into place, offshore rigs could be working by 2012 not far from South Florida, said Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a Cuba energy specialist at the University of Nebraska in Omaha who has visited the island many times.

"Cuba also could become a transshipment point for oil, refined products and exports for the region," Benjamin-Alvarado said.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., aims to head off those possibilities and keep drilling far from Florida shores. In a long-shot move, he seeks to scrap a 31-year-old accord that splits the 90 miles of water between the United States and Cuba and to redraw the boundaries.

"Soon, there could be oil rigs within 50 miles of the Florida Keys and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary," Nelson wrote the Bush administration in late January, after Brazil's president met then-Cuban leader Fidel Castro. "And, as the Gulf Stream flows, an oil spill or other drilling accident would desecrate part of Florida's unique environment and devastate its $50 billion tourism-driven economy."

Today, U.S. companies are the only ones banned from Cuba under terms of Washington's 45-year-old embargo. All other nations trade with the island, the Caribbean's largest.

The American Petroleum Institute, representing U.S. oil industry companies, long has rejected go-it-alone sanctions like the embargo on Cuba. It seeks greater access to oil reserves worldwide, a spokeswoman in Washington said.

Just four years ago, talk of Cuba becoming a serious producer of deep-water oil seemed far-fetched.

In 2004, Spain's Repsol announced offshore finds but deemed oil samples from Cuba not commercially viable.

But since then, oil prices have reached new inflation-adjusted highs and the economics of oil have changed.

Furthermore, recent events in Venezuela have raised concerns about how long President Hugo Chavez can keep up oil largesse to Cuba, now estimated to top $2 billion a year.

Cubans worry that if Venezuela cuts off cheap oil they'll suffer widespread blackouts as they did after the Soviet Union halted oil aid in the early 1990s. Back then, with fuel in short supply and cash tight, lights went out up to 16 hours a day and bicycles often replaced cars.

(Sun Sentinel)

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