By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The oil exploration battle further heated up last night after Bahamas Petroleum Company (BPC) sought to discredit an activist petition by asserting just 20 percent of signatories were local.
The explorer, which almost certainly faces a legal challenge to its bid to start exploratory drilling on December 15, said in a statement that research it commissioned by a "sophisticated data analysis" firm suggested that the Our Islands, Our Future coalition was using overseas signatories to skew the results of a petition that has attracted more than 50,000 backers.
BPC added that, in so doing, it was "trying to turn the view of Bahamians against this potentially transformational project" by giving the appearance that more of their countrymen are against exploratory drilling than there actually are.
Suggesting that the petition was being hosted by an online California-based business that specialises in these issues, BPC said: "Data collected on behalf of BPC by a company specialising in sophisticated data analysis indicates that the vast majority of these signatures are from persons not in The Bahamas, but rather are overseas parties with no obvious connection to The Bahamas...
"As of 30 November, 2020, data analysis shows that only 20 percent of the self-identified signatories were from inside The Bahamas, with the other 80 percent of such signatories based outside of The Bahamas. This directly contradicts the Our Islands, Our Future suggestion that the online petition represents the views of the Bahamian people.
"Indeed, rather than accurately reflect the view of Bahamians, it suggests more that Our Islands, Our Future is using a common global platform to recruit signatories from overseas so as to skew the results of the petition in support of their agenda in trying to turn the view of Bahamians against this potentially transformational project."
Reiterating its argument that the Government has "a legitimate sovereign right" to determine if commercial quantities of oil exist beneath the Bahamian seabed, BPC said: "BPC holds a valid authorisation from the Government to proceed with the exploration well and should not have an independently monitored process distorted by an external pressure campaign funded by already wealthy influencers from outside of The Bahamas.
"BPC strongly urges the public to find out more about the facts of the Perseverance One exploration well, the potential economic boost its success offers Bahamians, and the extensive environmental authorisation process completed with, and approved by, the Government of The Bahamas."
Fred Smith QC, the Our Islands, Our Future lead attorney, last night blasted back at BPC that, even if their 20 percent claim was true, this percentage still represented "thousands of Bahamians" who were opposed to the company's plans for waters 90 miles west of Andros.
Describing his response as "so what?", Mr Smith suggested that the lengths BPC had gone to in hiring a data analyst to discredit the coalition's position showed it was rattled by the threat of imminent legal action that will include an attempt to secure a Supreme Court injunction to halt all drilling activity.
"There are over seven million people that visited The Bahamas pre-COVID, so there will obviously be a strong international contribution to the petition," Mr Smith argued. "The Bahamas is an island location that millions of people come to every year, and they are interested in protecting the Bahamian environment so we can continue to have tourism as the mainstay of the economy."
Warning that any major oil spill or accident would "sound the death knell for The Bahamas as an absolutely beautiful location that people desire to come to," he added: "I am pleased to see that BOC are taking Our Islands, Our Future seriously because they should. We are a domestic and international coalition, and have a lot of support. BPC should, as they are doing, be taking us seriously because we are a serious crew."
The executive director of the Bahamas Reef Environment Education Foundation (BREEF), Casuarina McKinney-Lambert, last night said all signatories to the petition "need to be heard" with some 130 Bahamian and international groups now part of Our Islands, Our Future.