By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
THE Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation (BCCEC) yesterday backed permitting oil exploration in this nation's waters once regulatory safeguards were in place, telling Tribune Business potential earnings could "eliminate the National Debt in five years".
I Chester Cooper, the BCCEC's chairman, effectively told this newspaper that the Bahamas - and its economy - could not afford the 'opportunity cost' of passing up the financial benefits if commercial quantities of oil were found within this country's territorial boundaries.
Projecting that revenues worth a conservative $1 billion per year could be generated if the Bahamas Petroleum Company (BPC) and its joint venture partners were to discover oil deposits that could be extracted, Mr Cooper said the sector had the potential to "transform the economy" - both directly and through spin-off commercial activities.
Calling for a "non-partisan" debate on oil exploration in the Bahamas, the BCCEC chairman acknowledged that a comprehensive environmental, health and safety regime was required to protect this nation's environment and tourism industry.
Urging the Government to "get on with it" when it came to developing such a regulatory regime, Mr Cooper pointed out that the energy and tourism industries already co-existed in the Caribbean, in the shape of Trinidad & Tobago and Barbados. Cuba, also a tourism-dependent destination, has begun to drill in waters near its territorial boundaries with the Bahamas.
Emphasising that the BCCEC's support depended on the necessary safeguards being in place, Mr Cooper suggested it was time to lift the debate on oil exploration, and BPC's activities, to a higher level and away from being a 'political football'.
"Now that the political season is over, it is a good time to have a comprehensive, non-partisan debate on the issue," he said.
"We support the continued exploration of oil and, if successful, the eventual development of a safe and well-regulated industry. We urge the Government to quickly put the proper regulations in place for the orderly development of this industry."
Oil exploration was first seized on by the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) as an issue that it could exploit for political mileage in the general election run-up. Then former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham attempted to use it, and BPC, to portray the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) as 'conflicted' and unlikely to act in the nation's best interest, given that Davis & Co (now Deputy Prime Minister Philip Davis's law firm) and former PLP attorney general, Sean McWeeney, were named as the company's legal advisers.
There were then suggestions that Prime Minister Perry Christie had acted as consultant to BPC while in Opposition. Eventually, the PLP pledged to hold a referendum on whether oil drilling and exploration should be permitted in Bahamian waters, while Mr Ingraham backtracked from an earlier position that the FNM would not permit the industry if re-elected.
Ultimately, the former Ingraham administration returned to its already-stated position that oil drilling would not be permitted, and no new licences issued, until an appropriate regulatory regime has been implemented. Government officials have already visited the likes of Norway and the UK to examine those countries' regimes, and what the Bahamas can learn from and bring here.
Nevertheless, just prior to the general election, the Government decided not to renew the five BPC licences that expired on April 26, 2012, and returned the company's $300,000 fee payments to it. This leaves the ball very much in the newly-elected Christie administration's court.
BCCEC chairman Mr Cooper, meanwhile, indicated that the tremendous economic benefits - if oil was discovered in sufficient quantities in Bahamian waters - meant this nation, with its limited natural resources, narrow economic base and troubled government finances, could not afford to spurn this opportunity.
"The likely revenues can eliminate the National Debt in five years and contribute significantly to education, healthcare and development of infrastructure across the country and, importantly, an expansion in GDP leading to more favourable economic metrics," Mr Cooper said.
Hr added that the revenue generated from oil exploration could be used to reduce import tariffs on oil imports, reducing energy and gasoline costs. This, in turn, would lower the cost of living and doing business in the Bahamas, and make this nation much more competitive in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI).
"We cannot afford to be dismissive of these realities," Mr Cooper said, acknowledging that a proper regulatory regime - and its enforcement - were "a must" to preserve the environment and tourism industry.
Noting the example set by other Caribbean nations, he added: "It doesn't have to be one or the other - both can co-exist. It is being done in the region, in Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago.
"Clearly, the risks can be managed. We further understand that the Cubans are drilling right across the Bahamas' border. So we need not re-invent the wheel with respect to the regulations. We can draw on our friends in the international community with tried and tested regulations, like the US, UK, Trinidad and the Clean Caribbean Initiative."
Calling on the Government to "get on with it" when it came to developing a regulatory regime, because the opportunity cost of not doing so was too great, Mr Cooper said the Bahamas had to ensure its people were either trained abroad - or qualified Bahamians enticed back home - to participate in the oil exploration sector.
The BCCEC's energy and environment committee, he added, felt there was too much misinformation circulating on oil exploration, and called on the Government and BPC to better educate the public. The BCCEC is also planning to start discussions by hosting a luncheon on the topic shortly.