By MALCOLM STRACHAN
OBAN Energies has been the talk of the town for well over a month. Certainly, more grey hairs must be popping up all over the prime minister’s head as what he thought would have been a huge win for an administration struggling to endear itself to the Bahamian people. Prime Minister Minnis beamed like a teenager on prom night sitting on the right of the now infamous Peter Krieger on the fateful day the Oban powder keg fuse was lit to explode.
Now, what potentially was supposed to be a series of weeks where three heads of agreements were signed for various projects to stimulate economic growth throughout the archipelago has been derailed by a sideshow. This Oban debacle has been one that has shone a spotlight on the incompetence of this administration which made such an amateur mistake.
It was not that long ago when Prime Minister Minnis urged the Bahamian public to wait on the Heads of Agreement to be tabled, as to quell the concerns of the citizenry after the alarming revelations of Krieger’s criminal past surfaced in the media. Following the tabling of the heads, as we have all witnessed, things went from bad to exponentially worse.
Bahamians, far and wide, are struggling to understand how the prime minister could have so unartfully negotiated such a bad deal. This deal was not just any bad deal, though. When weighing the scales of the economic opportunity versus the environmental risk, it is not even close – not even in the same hemisphere.
The Heads of Agreement, which the good doctor thought would be the cure that would pacify the electorate, turned out to give away the whole farm to Oban – waiving taxes, changing tax laws and giving away hundreds of acres of crown land. In return, what did we get? A measly 250 permanent jobs and 600 construction jobs over a ten-year period. That’s right – an average of 25 and 60 jobs per year. You heard it here first, brothers and sisters, Grand Bahama is on its way back to streets of gold (tongue-in-cheek).
Although we wish this was a joke being played on us by the government, the irony of it is that is perhaps the best way to describe this – a sad joke.
The eerily strange irony that Prime Minister Minnis brought fire and brimstone on the former government over concessions given away in a secret deal with Baha Mar, and now, hardly a year later, he has done far worse.
At least Baha Mar, like most resort projects, has employed into the thousands and has great overall residual value for the country. Conversely, the Oban Energies deal provides nothing of the sort. Aside from a $1.2m annual lease of crown land and a few jobs - which is a mere drop in the bucket - the Minnis-led government has been outdone.
While the Bahamian people remain quite optimistic, believing that upon the government’s review of the Heads of Agreement there would be potential to renege on the deal, in all likelihood that is not what will happen.
The Oban president, Satpal Dhunna, has already stated the agreement is binding – meaning that an amateur oil company led by some sketchy characters holds all the marbles (literally and figuratively).
Nonetheless, the prime minister’s admission of governmental missteps has many wondering what will change the current circumstances. However, it seems the deal is done, and this is nothing more than an act of appeasing the Bahamian public and allowing Mr Dhunna time to gain the affection of the people on the ground.
This was attempted at a town meeting where Dhunna met with the people of East Grand Bahama last week to engage in discussion and answer questions regarding their concerns. As you could have imagined, opposing points of view were in attendance. Those who were justifiably sceptical because of the lack of information about a project of this size and scope taking place in their backyard without any community consultation were not easy on the Oban president. Likewise, there were also those present who could not care less if this were a sweatshop trading in black market body parts provided Grand Bahamians were back to work.
Naturally, without public education, the same split going into the town meeting would remain. Many Bahamians do not understand the impact that an oil refinery can have on the environment. Many do not care. However, ignorance isn’t always bliss and everything that glitters is not gold.
The cultural propensity to look for projects that only marginally benefit a few Bahamians by way of jobs is going to be what kills this country if there is no evolution. Contrarily, our demand to understand the pros and cons of any deal being negotiated by the government before they sign Heads of Agreements empowers us.
The pervasive mindset that many too often forget in the relationship between the elected and the electorate is that the people are the ones with the power. Yet, we entrust our future and vitality to those we elect on the merits of the campaign promises they made when our desires were a means to their end.
Equally important, the reciprocal nature of governance dictates that, when in office, the government is a means to the collective end of the Bahamian people. However, with no mandate or checks and balances that are upheld among the citizenry until election time, a government runs the country as it sees fit for five years. Certainly, we see how that has already turned out to be a costly mistake for this administration.
What may be more unfortunate is the fact this will never change unless we do something about it. It is maddening when we hear the darker side of desperation when people are ready to eat crumbs off the floor – pennies off the dollar on a $5.5bn deal.
Clearly, what you don’t know or care to know can not only hurt you, but also the generations to come after you’re gone. Aside from the very real physical danger of this deal, the lasting economic impact will more than likely prove to outweigh any potential benefit derived.
Oban will more than likely come and go. After the rich get richer and cash out, another Bahamian government may be in power, while our children will be grappling with the tax burden of getting rid of the refinery.
As it stands, the writing is on the wall. This deal is done. The government and Oban alike are in a period of damage control that will more than likely go on until May when the EIA is completed. However, there will be no deal-breakers, friends. Our government, instead of placing a higher premium on protecting the environment, opted to commit to fixing any issues found in the report.
Now, we can only hope for the best.
Going forward, it is incumbent on the Bahamian people to demand more from their government while in government because five years is a long time.
While many of us are inquisitive, and through social media, we spark intense debates on what governments do, there are still huge factions within the country that are guided by party allegiance and reserve their rights to understand what the government is doing.
A wise man once said, “Curiosity is the very basis of education and if you tell me that curiosity killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly.”
Dear brothers and sisters, let that be food for thought.