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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Cuban oil potential divides U.S. leaders

MIAMI, June 22 (UPI) -- U.S. lawmakers are split over efforts by American oil companies to soften the decades-long embargo against Cuba in hopes of reaching potentially lucrative oil and gas deposits off the communist-run island's shores.

With oil prices hovering near record highs -- and continued volatility in the Middle East assuring they'll stay there in the foreseeable future -- several U.S. energy firms are reportedly anxious to explore the Cuban waters that have been strictly taboo for more than 40 years.

At stake could be oil and gas fields that a recent U.S. Geological Survey said could rival the estimated reserves in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In all, the survey reported that some 4.6 billion barrels of crude oil and 9.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas just may well be lurking below of the ocean floor of the Northern Cuban basin.

All that potential fuel in close proximity to U.S. shores has seemingly swayed a handful of Republican leaders to change their minds on the Cuba issue, a stark contrast to the White House's traditional hard-line stance against pouring investment dollars into President Fidel Castro's coffers.

Among them is Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who earlier this year introduced a bill that would waive the Cuban embargo and allow U.S. companies to do business with Cuba's state-owned oil company, Cubapetroleo.

The senator argues that while U.S. firms are prohibited from doing business with Castro, and from exploring fields off the shores of southern Florida due to environmental restrictions, Cuba is already planning its own off-shore exploration and cultivating ties with countries like China.

Cuba is only 90 miles from the United States at its closest part. An agreement brokered in 1977 splits the waters between the two nations in half. The United States does not permit drilling on its half, though Castro is reportedly eager to explore Cuban waters.

"The bottom line is that Cuba will develop its oil fields within 45 miles of our shore. We can sit by and complain, only to watch rigs go out and start extracting oil, or we get involved," Craig told United Press International.

"I, for one, would rather have U.S. companies, who have the best environmental record, there, rather than countries like China, who has a dismal environmental record."

The Idaho lawmaker added that the longstanding embargo against Cuba has simply "not worked" and that while he makes "no apologies for Castro," the United States should "introduce Cubans to freedom, democracy, and capitalism firsthand."

"If we aren't there, China will be -- hardly a good example," he said.

China has been busy over the last few years, forging stronger energy ties with nations like Venezuela, whose President Hugo Chavez has become a major antagonist of the Bush administration while racking up billions of dollars from South America's most productive oil and gas reserves.

This week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is in Africa for talks with several leaders, including Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who human rights groups have criticized. Sudan, however, is also said to be awash in untapped oil reserves.

Though the lure of what lies beneath the waters off Cuba has piqued the interest of oil companies and lawmakers alike, some like Mauricio Claver-Carone, a member of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, said the potential for striking real oil riches out there is more fallacy than fact.

"It's been a big smoke screen for a long time ... the Soviets used to say there were large deposits off the shores of Cuba, though it hasn't been proven," said Claver-Carone, who also contends that Castro is using the basin as a means of promoting foreign investment in Cubapetroleo.

"Only Cubapetroleo is allowed to drill off shore ... though foreign countries can inject billions of dollars into Cuba, which can turn around and say they have nothing [in the offshore fields]," he noted.

Others, like Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, D-Fla., blasted the proposal and accused U.S. companies and lawmakers of pandering to the dictatorial regime in order to save a few dollars at the pump.

"Those are the kind of people who would say, 'If there is a buck to be made building a crematorium for Hitler, go ahead,'" Diaz-Balart told UPI in an interview Tuesday.

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