OFFSHORE DRILLING:

Spill panel's chairman says his push for Cuba talks irked Obama admin

The Obama administration is pushing back against plans by its oil spill commission co-chairman to spread his message about offshore drilling reforms to Cuba, the panel leader said today.

William Reilly, the co-chairman of the presidential panel that made a series of recommendations earlier this year to improve offshore drilling safety and regulation after the BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last summer, has already helped convinced Mexican drilling regulators to adopt U.S. regulatory structures.

But he said he has had his "wrist slapped" by the Obama administration for his plans to discuss reform with Cuba, with which the United States has had no diplomatic relations since 1961.

"I have been causing grief to the State Department," Reilly, a former U.S. EPA chief under President George H.W. Bush, said during an event hosted by Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C.

Cuba is developing plans to drill 16 oil and gas wells in waters 50 miles from Key West, Fla., using Spanish oil and gas giant Repsol YPF and Russian natural gas producer Gazprom.

"That's something that's very important to us, I think, given that they're drilling 50 miles off Key West, so I've asked to be invited to Cuba to talk about the report and have had my wrist slapped by the administration for raising the sensitive Cuban issue," Reilly said. "I had to say, 'I don't work for you.'"

Reilly said spreading the message to nations interested in drilling in Gulf waters is constructive and important. And he said if such plans do go forward, it is imperative for a company with an established safety record, like Repsol, to do the work.

"I asked one CEO of a major oil company, 'What's Gazprom like?' And he said, 'I don't think they've ever drilled an oil well -- they're a gas company,'" Reilly said. "Let's hope Repsol does all the work."

Reilly also blasted legislative proposals from Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) that would penalize international oil companies that operate in Cuban waters, calling it "counterproductive."

"What you want is a company like Repsol, which has its own interest in the United States, has rigs in the Gulf, applies for permits from the United States government," Reilly said. "I don't know who we would get -- maybe [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez -- if it were so limited that we couldn't have a responsible company doing that drilling."

Reilly said he is also negotiating a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to discuss offshore drilling safety in the Arctic.

Reilly's international efforts come as talks have come to a virtual standstill on reforming domestic offshore drilling safety. Only a handful of the panel's extensive recommendations have been implemented. And partisan bickering in the House and Senate could keep any legislative proposals to codify the recommendations from advancing this year.

But Reilly said he is not giving up on seeing some of the panel's strongest recommendations -- to create an independent industry-funded safety watchdog institute and to create a separate regulatory director within the Interior Department -- come to fruition.

"Yeah, I'm going to continue to pop up. I mean, I'm trying to go to Cuba," he said.