By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A leading environmental activist, whose petition against oil exploration in Bahamian waters has gained more than 1,400 signatures, has told Tribune Business that it would be “absolute lunacy” for such activities to be permitted in this nation.
Citing the environmental and economic risks, and consequences, of an oil spill in Bahamian waters, reEarth head, Sam Duncombe, said in a recent interview that the Bahamas Petroleum Company (BPC) was targeting “some of the most productive fishing waters in the Bahamas” for its exploration and drilling.
The reEarth online petition, ‘No Oil.... No Spoil’, has gained 1,418 of its 5,00 targeted signatures backing the anti-exploration stance to-date, and Ms Duncombe said that once the latter figure was achieved she would target 5,000 more.
A scan of the signatures shows that support for her’s, and reEarth’s, stance has been obtained from a mixture of Bahamians, second home residents and foreigners with an interest in environmental matters.
Although Tribune Business has done no scientific calculations, it appears that around 60-70 per cent of the signatures are from Bahamians or residents, assuming they are all authentic.
In any event, it demonstrates the extent of the task facing BPC and its supporters in convincing the Bahamian people to support its exploration/drilling plans, especially given the misinformation that has already been circulated - particularly in the run-up to the May 7 general election.
What is clear is that a sizeable enough percentage of the Bahamian people are opposed to oil exploration and drilling in this nation’s waters to make a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum far from certain.
Ms Duncombe, meanwhile, argued that the associated risks meant that permitting BPC’s activities “doesn’t make sense at all” for the Bahamas’ tourism and fisheries’ dependent economy.
And she also questioned the terms of the deal being offered by BPC, namely the ‘sliding scale’ royalties of 12-25 per cent per barrel of oil, suggesting it represented a poor return for the Bahamas when this nation was taking “all the risk”.
Explaining that the petition was designed to ensure “people get the point that this is not really the way to be going at this point”, Ms Duncombe also criticised the Christie administration for failing to publicly state its position on oil exploration and drilling.
The environmental activist’s petition certainly appears to have obtained her desired response, judging from the responses.
A Karen Rodriguez from Florida, in signing up, wrote: “I am a homeowner on the beautiful, pristine island of Great Harbour Cay. Please protect what makes the Bahamas so special.”
Bahamas-based posters echoed similar sentiments. A Jennifer Campbell posted: “How many disasters are necessary before people understand how bad this is? Why not develop renewable energy sources instead? It’s safer, cleaner, cheaper in the long run and creates jobs.”
Tavar Major added: “The environment is too fragile for oil exploration”, while Christopher d’Albenas said: “The Bahamas was the first in the world to institute a land and sea park, and we have one of the last healthy conch, lobster, and Nassau grouper populations in the Caribbean.
“Bahamians, let’s not be stupid about our future. With this gamble, only the politicians can win, and everyone can lose.”
BPC would beg to differ, given its projections that the cash-strapped Bahamian government would gain $30 billion in revenues over the first 10 years if an oil field was discovered in this nation.
However, Ancilleno Davis, another petition signer, said: “As a scientist that studies the native fish and coral populations of the Bahamas, and having taken part in surveys on the Cay Sal Bank and the forests of Andros and throughout the Bahama Islands, I know what we have to lose.”
The majority of BPC’s licence areas are around the Cay Sal Bank, bordering the maritime boundaries with Cuba, and Ms Duncombe said: “For them to be considering oil exploration in what so many people have labelled the most productive fishing waters in the Bahamas is absolute lunacy.
“A lot of fishermen go there. I’m surprised the Fishers Alliance has not made more noise about it. It will affect their industry first, and the rest of us will feel the pinch down the road.”
BPC’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) does its best to allay many such concerns. Its findings point out that a spill similar to BP’s Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico would not happen in the Bahamas, given that the well structure and seabed make-up here are substantially different.
The EIA also showed that, in the worse case scenario of an oil spill, favourable ocean currents would take the oil away from the Bahamas, and more towards Cuba. And, in any event, the Bahamas will be exposed to oil spill risks whether it approves exploration/drilling or not, given that Cuba has approved such activities some 10 miles from this nation’s maritime borders.
BPC has also promised to adhere to the highest regulatory, environmental and safety standards, and the Government is supposed to be working to put legislation and a regulatory regime in place.
Still, this did not stop Ms Duncombe for criticising BPC for proceeding with underwater seismic testing and surveys “without an EIA”. She argued that such activities impacted the marine environment, and raised questions about whether the company’s pledges could be trusted.
“I would like the Government to realise there is a lot of opposition to it,” she told Tribune Business. “We’re reminding them of the potential reality of a spill happening in our waters.
“It just does not make sense at this point, given all the environmental risks associated with oil that we have seen time and again, to put our country, people and kids at risk. It does not make sense at all.
“They [BPC] talk about having the best and brightest available if we have a spill. Don’t you think BP had the best and brightest available, yet they have ongoing issues in the Gulf of Mexico?”
Should a spill occur, Ms Duncombe said the average tourist would not know the difference between Cay Sal Bank and Nassau, and simply equate the event with the Bahamas - deterring them from visiting.
“The deal is not exactly a great deal either,” the environmental activist added. “It sounds a lot like the LNG deal, where we take all the risk, the oil company makes all the money and we get a small fraction.
“There’s no amount of money that can convince me that’s the way to go.” The final financial terms of any agreement for BPC have yet to be worked out, and will depend on the referendum’s outcome.
Ms Duncombe also appeared to equate BPC’s plans as being a barrier to developing alternative, renewable energies although, again, no deal has been finalised for the Bahamas or its petroleum industry to acquire anything the company may extract.