Florida has long fought to prevent oil drilling anywhere near its white sandy beaches. But as the state continues to deal with oil from the Gulf of Mexico spill washing up on its shores, it faces a new threat: deepwater drilling in nearby Cuban waters.

Maria Ritter, a spokeswoman for Spanish oil company Repsol YPF SA, said it plans to drill off Cuba, about 60 miles south of Key West, Fla., early next year. If successful, this would likely kick off a spate of exploration. Only one deepwater well has been drilled in Cuban waters, by Repsol in 2004. The effort found oil but not enough to justify commercial development.

Since then, the U.S. Geological Survey has said there could be a substantial amount of untapped oil off the Cuban coast, whetting the appetite of several global oil companies that have signed exploration leases.

U.S. companies won't participate because of a longstanding trade embargo against Cuba. Repsol plans to use a floating drilling rig being refurbished in a Chinese shipyard, similar to the Deepwater Horizon rig leased by BP PLC that caught fire and sank in the Gulf of Mexico in April. Almost all parts and components in the rig to be used by Repsol are from non-U.S. companies.

The Obama administration has sought a six-month ban on deepwater drilling in U.S. waters to reassess risks and establish new safety procedures if necessary. But any new rules wouldn't reach Repsol's project in Cuban waters.

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A spill there, even one significantly smaller than the continuing BP spill, could turn into an economic and environmental nightmare for Florida. Some oceanographers say the oil would likely be carried up Florida's Atlantic Coast, the heart of its tourism industry.

"We have one of the world's largest coral reefs and a protected marine sanctuary there," said Dan McLaughlin, a spokesman for Sen. Bill Nelson (D., Fla.) "We should not be drilling there."

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