The pelicans gather each afternoon, cute, gawky and hungry. They flap and flop awkwardly among the mangrove roots as Juan Leon, a worker at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center, tosses them fish to supplement their natural diet.
“We feed them because the natural fish population isn’t what it should be,” said Bruce Horn, who leads the center, which helps rescue injured and sick birds. “Our environment here is very fragile.”
Which is exactly why Horn and other residents of this vacation paradise are worried about news that the Cuban government has struck oil just a few dozen miles from Florida’s environmentally sensitive string of islands.
“That’s absolutely scary,” Horn says. “The Keys don’t have sandy beaches, and you couldn’t just scoop up oil if there was a spill. If it got into the mangrove roots, it would be disastrous.”
Experts say the exact size of Cuba’s offshore oil deposits is still in question, but the potential is impressive. A U.S. Geological Survey study estimates that a curving belt of ocean floor north of Cuba might contain at least 4.5 billion barrels of oil and nearly 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
In contrast, an area in U.S. waters about 200 miles west of Tampa just approved by Congress for drilling is thought to hold about 1.3 billion barrels of oil and 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The United States currently uses about 21 million barrels of oil a day.
Cuba’s government has wasted no time in pushing to develop the fields. The region has been divided into 59 exploration blocks, and Cuba has signed deals with foreign oil companies to begin drilling in earnest.
One well sunk by Spanish oil company Repsol-YPF has already found oil but not in commercially viable quantities.
“But it was enough that Norway’s Norsk Hydro acquired a 30 percent stake,” said Jorge Pinon, a former oil company executive who is now a research associate at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. “Norsk Hydro wouldn’t go to Cuba for political purposes. They are one of the best deepwater drilling companies in the world, and if they are going in, it is likely this will be viable.”
Cuba has signed other oil deals with companies from Venezuela, India, China and Canada, a clear sign that a Cuban oil boom is brewing. But Pinon says it will be several years before the offshore Cuban operations crank into high gear because of soaring demand around the world for the limited number of deepwater oil rigs.
The activity has already caught the interest of U.S. lawmakers. Competing bills were introduced in Congress this year, with supporters of the U.S. embargo against Cuba proposing to deny visas to foreign oil workers headed to Cuba.
A rival bill would exempt U.S. oil companies from the embargo and allow them to participate in the Cuban oil rush.
“At risk are the Florida Keys and the state’s tourism economy, not to mention the $8 billion that Congress is investing to restore the Everglades,” said Senator Bill Nelson, one of the sponsors of the bill aiming to limit the Cuban drilling.
Neither bill passed, but the issue seems certain to come up again.
Embargo opponents hope that the new Congress, to be run by Democrats for the first time in more than a decade, will ease the trade and travel restrictions and allow U.S. participation. The Cuban government has actively sought bids from American oil companies.
“This is a product the U.S. needs,” said Kirby Jones, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association, a group seeking to break the embargo. “If we maintain the embargo, it says we don’t need that oil and it’s OK for India, Canada, Spain and these other countries to take it.”
With some of the Cuban exploration blocks just 50 miles from Key West, many Keys residents would prefer no drilling at all. Short of that, they would rather have U.S. companies involved.