By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - With Cuba preparing to explore for oil 60 miles from Florida, the complicated politics of U.S.-Cuba relations are impeding U.S. efforts to get ready in case of a BP-style accident, analysts and oil experts said.
The Obama administration must do more to ensure that U.S. companies can quickly mobilize safety and containment equipment should a well blow out, which could do catastrophic damage to the Florida coast, the experts said in recent interviews.
The blowout of a BP well off Louisiana last year killed 11 people, took 85 days to control and spilled 5 million barrels of oil that killed wildlife and blackened beaches along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Cuba's first well, expected to be drilled this fall, will be in 5,600 feet of water, deeper than the BP well in the Gulf of Mexico.
But not much has been done as Florida lawmakers, and powerful Cuban-American leaders in particular, cling to their decades-old dream of toppling Cuba's Communist government, said Washington attorney Robert Muse, a specialist in Cuban issues.
They have proposed bills aimed at killing Cuban oil development by discouraging oil companies from working there, and are resisting the notion that the U.S. needs to work with the island to assure adequate emergency response, he said.
"They want to keep the place in a state of economic misery and hope it will ignite once the Castro brothers are gone," he said. "It's that old dream of strangling the Cuban economy."
The issue is a prickly one for President Barack Obama, with Florida looming crucial in his 2012 reelection campaign and many of the state's lawmakers opposed to concessions to the Cuban government led by President Raul Castro.
U.S. Senator and Cuban exile Bob Menendez of New Jersey sides with the Floridians on Cuba issues and, unlike most of them, is a Democrat.
Obama has stayed largely on the sidelines of the Cuba drilling issue, taking little public action and making few comments about it.
His administration's biggest step so far was to send U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to Spain this month to meet with officials of the oil company, Repsol YPF, that is set to drill the first offshore well.
U.S. SAFETY STANDARDS
Salazar said the company told him it would meet all U.S. safety requirements and allow the U.S. to inspect the Chinese-built drilling rig it will use.
Also, at least two U.S. oil safety companies are currently licensed by the U.S. government to go to Cuba should there be an accident requiring their help. Experts say many more are needed, and the U.S. State Department has said it will approve more.
The long-standing U.S. trade embargo against Cuba prevents American companies from working there without U.S. permission.
But the administration has not taken what many experts consider the most critical step -- meeting directly with the Cubans to develop joint safety regulations and protocol.
The U.S. commission that investigated the BP blowout recommended coordination with Cuba to assure both the safety of its offshore development and an adequate accident response.
Cuba has said it would welcome U.S. involvement in its oil industry.
"Their environment is our environment, too, so we should do everything we can to find ways to collaborate," said Cuba expert Phil Peters at the Lexington Institute think tank in Arlington, Virginia.
"The drilling is going to occur and if the U.S. simply looks the other way, then Repsol will not have the best possible resources available," he said.
The U.S. already has a joint oil spill response with Mexico and could bring Cuba into that agreement, said Jorge Pinon, an expert on Cuban oil at Florida International University.
"They (the Obama administration) are terrified of talking to the Cubans," he said. "Somebody is telling them 'don't get together with the Cubans.'"
Legislation proposed by Florida lawmakers would ban foreign oil companies working in Cuba from exploring for oil in the United States and prevent executives of companies investing more than $1 million in Cuban oil operations from getting U.S. visas. It would also require any companies drilling off Cuba to show their operations meet U.S. safety standards.
While Florida lawmakers want to protect their state from oil spills, the Cuba oil issue is also an emotional one for Cuban Americans who long for political change in their homeland.
Cuba believes it may have 20 billion barrels of oil offshore, which would be a big boost to its lagging economy and, in the eyes of its opponents, a despotic regime.
"The Cuban regime is desperately attempting to prolong its overdue existence and tyrannical influence be setting up this oil rig," U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, recently told the Florida Keys Keynoter.
(Editing by Tom Brown)