Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), a foe of drilling offshore Florida, has asked President Bush not to renew an international agreement that allows for oil and natural gas drilling in Cuban waters within 50 miles of the Sunshine State’s coastline.

A number of foreign countries have signed agreements with Cuba to explore its energy-rich waters in the Gulf of Mexico. The latest country to partner with Cuba is Brazil, which joins China, India, Spain and companies from Canada.

“Soon there could be oil [and gas] rigs within 50 miles of the Florida Keys and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. 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,” Nelson said in a letter to President Bush last Wednesday.

Cuban waters, as defined by the U.S.-Cuba 1977 Maritime Boundary Agreement, are just 45 miles off the southern Florida coast, he said. The 1977 international agreement between the United States and Cuba established a 313-mile long boundary separating the U.S.-controlled side of the Florida Straits from Cuba’s side.

“This agreement was never ratified by the Senate but has been enforced via the exchange of diplomatic notes every two years. My staff informs me the State Department has sent the latest such notes but that they have not been received yet by the Cuban government…I am writing to urge you to recall these notes.” The agreement was last renewed in 2006.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that undiscovered resources below the floor of the Northern Cuban Basin may be as much as 4.6 billion bbl of oil and 9.8 Tcf of natural gas.

Current U.S. policy bars U.S. producers from developing oil and natural gas fields that lie in Cuban waters and are within 50 miles of Florida. In 2007 Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Larry Craig (R-ID) offered a measure to lift the embargo on U.S. producers to explore for oil and gas in Cuban waters located as close as 45 miles from Florida (see NGI, March 19, 2007).

The bill, which is still pending, contends that domestic producers should be allowed to drill in these waters, where national oil companies have currently been granted access by Cuba to carry out exploration and production activities.

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