By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Deputy Chief Reporter
WHILE the government’s decision to amend the controversial Oban Energies heads of agreement is “encouraging”, the Bahamas National Trust urged officials to ensure the new HOA provides strong environmental protections that go as far as scrapping the project if the EIA outlines negative impacts.
In the days following an announcement the government was finalising several amendments to the Oban HOA, BNT President Eric Carey said he is hopeful the new agreement is “solid” and addresses concerns that have lingered for several months.
Labour Minister Dion Foulkes, who heads a subcommittee to analyse the project and the HOA, said last week chief among the changes was the review and adjustment of environmental clauses, economic terms and several restrictive legal conditions now in the HOA.
At the height of controversy surrounding the $5.5bn proposed oil refinery for Grand Bahama, the BNT said it could not see any scenario where it could support the project.
That was more than three months ago.
“We have noted with interest the statement from the minister that the government is going to develop a new heads of agreement,” Mr Carey said yesterday when he was contacted. “We note especially the reference to paying closer attention and placing greater emphasis on the environmental aspects.
“So we are hoping that when they revise it, certainly when the (environmental impact assessment) is done, if it ever gets done, if there are findings that are negative and show an unacceptable level of impact on the environment, we are hoping that there will be a clause that says the project wouldn’t be able to go ahead. We certainly hope that the environment will be protected in the new heads of agreement.”
Mr Carey said the BNT sent a letter to Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis the day before Mr Foulkes revealed amendments to the HOA would be complete in the next several weeks asking for an update on this matter.
Understandably there has yet to be a response, Mr Carey said, but he reminded officials the BNT remains very concerned and interested in the Oban deal.
Asked whether he would support developers finding another site for the oil refinery, Mr Carey said he could not make that recommendation yet. However he conceded that given the country’s geographic make up, it would be challenging not be near sensitive ecosystems as far as large scale developments are concerned.
“The government’s job is to obviously create employment and the National Trust is not going to tie the government’s hands in trying to create employment.
“But when it is a location that is either sensitive and automatically raises concerns we will state those concerns as in this case. So it is now the government’s responsibility to ensure that as this project goes through approval process that there needs to be a determination based heavily on protecting the environment so that’s the first thing we wanted.
“Despite the location, even if it wasn’t in proximity to a national park, in any way you add to the industry you will be within a mile or so of the coast or proximity to sensitive marine systems or you are going to be within proximity to sensitive fresh water resources because of the very geography of our country.
“So we want to ensure that as we deal with these developments, large or small, that careful attention is paid to the potential environmental impacts and due diligence be carried out to try to the best extent possible to minimise or eliminate any negative impact whether in a national park or not.”
When he was asked if he believed the deal should have been scrapped because of its controversial nature, Mr Carey said: “I am encouraged that the government is rethinking the deal and the heads of agreement.
“I don’t think I am qualified or know enough to say it should or should not be scrapped, but I think we should all be encouraged that the government has listened to the concerns by NGOs, other civil society organisations and the general public.
“The government itself admitted to several missteps in this process and the fact that they are now hopefully trying to execute a process to correct those missteps and give us a solid heads that is able to address any concerns that a project of this size would raise is encouraging.”
During his Senate contribution to the budget debate, Mr Foulkes expressed optimism the Oban deal would help turn around Grand Bahama’s economy.
It has been four months since the government signed the heads of agreement for the $5.5bn facility.
In that time, the deal has received intense push-back from civic groups, including several of the country’s foremost environmental organisations.
The fallout has forced some within the governing Free National Movement to come out and admit that there were gross missteps involved in the government’s decision to press forward with the deal, ultimately forcing Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis to delay plans related to the project and call for a review.
According to Mr Foulkes, in the weeks after Dr Minnis’ decision, he appointed a sub-committee to analyse the project and the HOA.
“We have made many trips to Grand Bahama,” Mr Foulkes said last week.
“We have met with many persons in Grand Bahama including professionals who are in the industry… we are relying very heavily on the advice of Bahamian professionals and we are listening to the residents of Grand Bahama with respect to this matter,” he added.
Mr Foulkes said the sub-committee was instructed to review the HOA, with a view to improve the terms in the agreement to ensure better environmental protection to the island of Grand Bahama.
“I can report… in a few weeks we will have an amended heads of agreement for Oban that we believe will be acceptable to the Bahamian people at large, but more importantly acceptable to Grand Bahamians and persons living in Grand Bahama, particularly those living in East Grand Bahama,” Mr Foulkes said.