WASHINGTON — As Congress has debated energy policy over the past several days, an unusual argument keeps surfacing in support of drilling off the U.S. coastline and in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Why, ask some Republicans, should the United States be thwarted from drilling in its own territory when just 50 miles off the Florida coastline the Chinese government is drilling for oil under Cuban leases?
Yet no one can prove that the Chinese are drilling anywhere off Cuba's shoreline. The China-Cuba connection is "akin to urban legend," said Sen. Mel Martinez, a Republican from Florida who opposes drilling off the coast of his state but who backs exploration in ANWR.
"China is not drilling in Cuba's Gulf of Mexico waters, period," said Jorge Pinon, an energy fellow with the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami and an expert in oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. Martinez cited Pinon's research when he took to the Senate floor Wednesday to set the record straight.
Even so, the Chinese-drilling-in-Cuba legend has gained momentum and has been swept up in Republican arguments to open up more U.S. territory to domestic production.
Vice President Dick Cheney, in a speech Wednesday to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, picked up the refrain. Cheney quoted a column by George Will, who wrote last week that "drilling is under way 60 miles off Florida. The drilling is being done by China, in cooperation with Cuba, which is drilling closer to South Florida than U.S. companies are."
In his speech, Cheney described the Chinese as being "in cooperation with the Cuban government. Even the communists have figured out that a good answer to higher prices means more supply."
"But Congress says no to drilling in ANWR, no to drilling on the East Coast, no to drilling on the West Coast," Cheney added.
The office of House Minority Leader John Boehner defended the GOP drilling claims. "A 2006 New York Times story highlights lease agreements negotiated between Cuba and China and the fact that China was planning to drill in the Florida Strait off the coast of Cuba," said spokesman Michael Steel.
The China-Cuba connection also appeared in an editorial Monday in Investor's Business Daily, which wrote that "the U.S. Congress has voted consistently to keep 85 percent of America's offshore oil and gas off-limits, while China and Cuba drill 60 miles from Key West, Fla."
And on Tuesday, Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., wrote in the Modesto Bee that "China, thanks to a lease issued by Cuba, is drilling for oil just 50 miles off Florida's coast."
A spokesman for Radanovich said Wednesday that the congressman had read about a Cuban lease to Chinese interests in the 2006 Times article.
China's Sinopec oil company does have an agreement with the Cuban government, but it's to develop onshore resources west of Havana, Pinon said. The Chinese have done some seismic testing, he said, but no drilling, and nothing offshore.
Western diplomats in Havana tell McClatchy that to the best of their knowledge, there is no Chinese drilling in or around Cuba.
"I've never heard anything about this," said one diplomat from a country in the hemisphere.
The Western diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media about energy issues, said they believed there is no new drilling occurring off the coast of Cuba, just exploration.
Cuba's state oil company, Cupet, has issued exploration contracts to companies from India, Canada, Spain, Malaysia and Norway, according to diplomats.
But many oil companies from those countries have expressed reservations about how to turn potential crude oil into product. Cuba doesn't have the refinery capacity, and the Cuban embargo prohibits the oil from coming to U.S. refineries, Pinon said.
The most recent high-profile contract with Cuba went to Brazil's state oil company, Petrobras. Cuba inked a contract with Petrobras in January, allowing the Brazilian energy giant to search for oil in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico that are within Cuba's sovereign territory. Brazil's foreign minister, Celso Amorim, traveled to Cuba last month and talked up the oil business, along with a joint venture between Cuba and Petrobras to produce lubricants.
Most of Cuba's oil comes from Venezuela, with whom it shares an ideological bent and geographical proximity. Brazil's growing role in Cuba's energy sector is significant because Petrobras has been involved in some of the world's few discoveries of new and large oilfields.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008