MIAMI - A Florida Republican congressman has sent a proposed bill to Congress seeking to block Cuba's plans to start its first full-scale offshore oil exploration with a deepwater rig located off the Florida Keys.
If approved, the draft bill by Congressman Vern Buchanan could deal a blow to Spanish oil giant Repsol YPF, which leads a consortium of international oil companies looking to drill for oil beneath the Caribbean island's part of the Gulf of Mexico.
"Cuba's plans to drill for oil in its sovereign waters off the Florida Keys poses a serious threat to our tourism industry and our environment," Buchanan said in a statement published on his website.
The proposed legislation would give the U.S. Interior Secretary the authority to deny leases to companies that do business with any nation currently facing U.S. trade sanctions, such as communist-ruled Cuba.
The exploration project is key for Cuba, which needs oil to sustain its fragile economy and end its dependence on oil-rich socialist ally Venezuela, which provides about 115,000 barrels per day on favorable terms.
Buchanan said Cuba's plans involve drilling in waters deeper than last year's massive BP Gulf spill and questioned whether Havana was capable of dealing with a potential oil spill.
"It would take just three days for oil to reach Florida's beaches if a spill occurred at the site," he said.
Cuba is located 90 miles from the southernmost tip of the Florida.
Repsol, along with Norway's Statoil and ONGC Videsh, a unit of India's Oil and Natural Gas Corp, have contracted a Chinese-built drilling rig to drill one or two exploratory wells near Cuba's northwestern coast.
The rig was expected to arrive in Cuban waters in the first quarter of 2011 but has been delayed until mid-summer, industry sources said earlier this month.
Buchanan said Repsol, which operates existing rigs in the Western Gulf of Mexico near Texas and Lousiana, scrapped plans several years ago for a gas development plant in Iran after coming under U.S. diplomatic pressure.
(Writing by Kevin Gray; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and David Gregorio)