Former U.S. Senator and Florida Gov. Bob Graham is part of an American contingent traveling to Cuba on Monday to explore the communist nation's oil drilling plans.
Graham, the keynote speaker at the Everglades Coalition conference at the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club on Saturday evening, said he will be joining about a dozen others, including prominent offshore oil industry experts, for the trip, which is being coordinated by the Council on Foreign Relations.
At least four exploratory wells drilled off Cuba's northern shore over the last two years have come up dry, but the island nation's goal is to attain energy self-sufficiency by tapping into the 4.6 billion to 9.3 billion barrels of oil believed to be offshore.
"It's very important for the nation, and particularly important for Florida that any drilling done in that area be done at a very high standard of safety and with the capability to respond if there is an accident," Graham said Saturday afternoon, while relaxing at the hotel's beachfront restaurant.
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"The reason for the trip," he said, "is to talk to the Cubans, try to better understand what their plans are, what their capabilities are, and, frankly, how the international community ... can cooperate in a way to ensure that Cuba drills at the highest level of international safety standards."
Graham was co-chair of the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling established by President Barack Obama after the April 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The commission's other co-chair, William K. Reilly, a former EPA administrator, is also part of Monday's trip, Graham said.
The trip is being coordinated by Julia E. Sweig, a senior fellow at the CFR, Graham said. They are expected to return to the United States on Friday.
The United States has a two-pronged policy on Cuba -- an economic embargo and diplomatic isolation. Graham, a supporter of the embargo, said he knows there are those who feel any contact with Cuba is tacit support for the country's communist regime. But ensuring Cuba's oil drilling is done safely is in the best interest of the United States, he said. "The consequences of failure are not going to be on Havana, but are going to be on South Florida. The nature of the currents are going to carry the oil to the northeast and then to the north," he said.
Graham said he had not seen an itinerary for the trip, and didn't know exactly who in the Cuban government they will be meeting with. "I'm confident that they're not sending us down there to meet with people who don't have some ability to affect the decisions" of the government or private sector, he said.
Conversations about Cuba's human rights abuses would likely be "sidebar discussions," said Graham, who said he hoped to experience the flavor of the island during his first trip there. "I went to the Soviet Union before the end of the Cold War, and I've been in China, a lot of sensitive places," he said, "and I feel I'm sophisticated enough to know when I might be propagandized."
During his speech at the Everglades conference, Graham said 2013 was the year that Floridians became aware of how serious the state's water problems are.
"Now we're transitioning from awareness to action; what should we be doing about it," he said.
Included in his prescription: developing a state water plan; restricting activities that lead to pollution, including over-fertilizing lawns; and focusing on water consumption.