U.S. Concerned By Cuban Oil Drilling Off Coast

Cuba is leasing oil drilling rights off its northwest shores. Some in the United States say the federal government should swallow its distaste of Fidel Castro and allow U.S. companies to bid on the rights. Others say no one should be drilling just 50 miles off Key West.

The U.S. trade embargo is 44 years old. The potential reserve that might be located in the area is more than one billion barrels.

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"The Cuban government is currently leasing their oil reserves. They're going to get money. The question is from whom." said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

The 1962 trade embargo, designed to punish the Castro government, has come under attack in recent years from lawmakers in agricultural states who already sell limited amounts of food to Cuba under humanitarian agreements.

But the ongoing embargo is supported by Cuban-Americans, a key voting bloc in Florida. Opponents say scrapping the embargo would mean funneling money into a repressive dictatorship.

"It's not a friendly country. It's a terrorist state but even if it was a great ally we should not allow drilling 45 miles off of our coast," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who is of Cuban descent.

But Craig said U.S. energy firms should be exploring for oil off Cuba, not only because the U.S. market is a huge and thirsty, but also because American firms must comply with higher safety standards than foreign companies currently involved. The massive rigs from other nations could mean massive oil spills that could threaten a delicate ecology and a $50 billion tourist industry.

"China is there. They are now doing some exploratory drilling. It is our belief that the Chinese don't have the experience that we would expect and want for environmental safety," he said.

Cuba does not have technology for deep-water drilling. It has signed deals with China as well as companies from Spain and Canada.

Industry experts say allowing U.S. firms to compete with foreign state-owned companies off Cuba could ensure U.S. access to what could someday become an important source of oil.

"It's really preserving the opportunity for the U.S. companies to be able to compete for these resources particularly those that are close to the U.S. shores and where the U.S. market would be an obvious place to bring these resources." said Bob Greco, director of oil and natural gas issues pertaining to exploration and production at the American Petroleum Institute.

Click in the box near the top of the story to watch a report by FOX News' Steve Harrigan.