WASHINGTON – Vice President Dick Cheney's office acknowledged on Thursday that he was mistaken when he asserted that China, at Cuba's behest, is drilling for oil in waters 60 miles from the Florida coast.
In a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Cheney said on Wednesday that waters in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, long off limits to oil companies, should be opened to drilling because China is already there pumping oil.
"Oil is being drilled right now 60 miles off the coast of Florida," the vice president said. "We're not doing it, the Chinese are, in cooperation with the Cuban government. Even the communists have figured out that a good answer to high prices is more supply."
He cited his source as columnist George Will, who last week wrote: "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."
Congressional Democrats pounced on the vice president's remarks and were backed up by independent energy experts, who called the assertion hyperbole at best and a falsehood at worst.
Cheney's office said in a statement to The Associated Press that the vice president had erred.
"It is our understanding that, although Cuba has leased out exploration blocks 60 miles off the coast of southern Florida, which is closer than American firms are allowed to operate in that area, no Chinese firm is drilling there," according to the statement.
Cuba clearly is interested in developing its deep-water oil resources, estimated at more than 5 billion barrel, including areas within 60 miles of Key West, Fla., energy experts said.
Jorge Pinon, a senior energy fellow at the University of Miami specializing in Latin America, said Cuba has awarded offshore oil leases, or concessionary blocs, in its offshore waters to six oil companies — none of them Chinese — and soon may announce an agreement with Brazil's state oil company, Petrobras.
"But no one is currently drilling in any of those concessions," said Pinon in a telephone interview. Pinon, who supports drilling in the eastern Gulf and believes it can be done without hurting the environment, said China is being raised as an unnecessary "boogeyman" by drilling proponents.
"There is no actual drilling yet. ... There is exploration," said Johanna Mendelson-Forman, a senior fellow on energy and Latin America at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
She said China's oil company, Sinopac, has conducted exploratory drilling on a lease on land in western Cuba, but is not involved in the offshore development.
But talk of China drilling in waters within 50 miles to 60 miles of Key West has been a common theme among Republicans. They are clamoring to open more of the country's offshore waters to energy development, including the eastern Gulf where drilling is strongly opposed by Florida officials.
"China, thanks to a lease issued by Cuba, is drilling for oil just 50 miles from Florida's coast," Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., recently wrote in The Modesto Bee in California, arguing for opening waters that have been off limits for 25 years to U.S. companies.
Radanovich's office said the congressman was in transit and not immediately available Thursday.
House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, calling for more domestic oil production, declared, "right at this moment some 60 miles or less off the coast of Key West, Fla., China has the green light to drill for oil."
"Even China recognizes that oil and natural gas is readily available off our shores, thanks to Fidel Castro," complained Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a leader of a GOP energy task force.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., accused the Republicans of pushing oil development by "scaring up the ghosts of communism and xenophobia" and "perpetuating a myth that China is drilling off the coast of Florida."