Lawmakers: U.S. should be doing more to block Cuban offshore drilling

A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers today blasted the Obama administration for not doing more to block offshore drilling off the island nation’s coast.

“We are extremely concerned over what seems to be a lack of a coordinated effort by the administration to prevent a state sponsor of terrorism . . . from engaging in risky deep-sea oil drilling projects that will harm U.S. interests as well as extend another economic lifeline to the Cuban regime,” the lawmakers, which are all of Cuban descent, said in a letter to President Barack Obama.

The letter signers, Reps. David Rivera, R-Fla., Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and Albio Sires, D-N.J., insist that the Obama administration should have done more to stop planned drilling in Cuban waters, instead of coordinating with the first of several companies set to launch the work.

At issue are the plans by Repsol, a privately owned Spanish company, to drill an exploratory well in Cuban waters just 50 miles from the Florida coast as early as December.

The U.S. has no say in the company’s drilling — or in the Cuban regulations that will govern the work. And America’s power to influence the work is even more limited because of the 19-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, which generally bars commerce with the nation and caps the amount of American-made components in offshore drilling vessels and other equipment at 10 percent.

Nevertheless, the Interior Department has used its leverage with Repsol, which has leases to drill in American Gulf waters, to extract a commitment that the company will follow all U.S. standards for its Cuban drilling. Repsol also has agreed to allow Coast Guard and Interior Department inspectors to evaluate the Scarabeo 9 drilling rig that it is using for the work, before that vessel crosses into Cuban waters.

The Interior Department’s cooperation with Repsol may be illegal, the lawmakers charged:

“The support that the Department of Interior is providing to Repsol appears to be in contravention of the Trading with the Enemy Act, as such assistance will result in a financial windfall to the Cuban regime.”

And the lawmakers complained that Saipem’s Scarabeo 9 rig was likely designed “specifically to avoid U.S economic sanctions against Cuba,” with just under 10 percent of the software and equipment on the vessel coming from America. But that could still mean U.S. technology would “fall in the hands of a regime that supports terrorism,” the lawmakers said.

Obama administration officials have insisted that they are being pragmatic in working with Repsol to boost the safety of its drilling, since collaboration with Cuban authorities is off limits.

Michael Bromwich, the head of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, said the assumption is that Repsol’s drilling is “a given,” so working with the company made more sense than stepping aside.

“The administration has made a decision that that’s not a responsible course of action,” Bromwich told reporters during a House hearing on the subject today. It “could lead to lots of undesirable developments if we tried to stop activities in waters that don’t belong to us, so we have rejected that alternative and instead have tried to do what we can to protect American interests.”