* Activists slam explorer's environmental submissions
* Allege spill could hit industries with $7.7bn output
* Urge PM to 'immediately cancel' existing licences
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Environmental activists yesterday warned the Prime Minister more than 122,000 Bahamian jobs could be in jeopardy if imminent oil exploration activities result in any accidental spills or pollution.
The groups behind the Our Islands, Our Future coalition, in a letter to Dr Hubert Minnis that was obtained by Tribune Business, alleged there were numerous deficiencies in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Environmental Management Plan (EMP) submitted by Bahamas Petroleum Company (BPC).
With an impact assessment suggesting that $7.7bn, a sum equivalent to 62 percent of The Bahamas' 2018 GDP, could be threatened in a worst-case scenario, Our Islands, Our Future accused BPC of bombarding Bahamians with "meaningless information to make us think they have done their homework" when it has not.
The oil explorer has already obtained the necessary Environmental Authorisation (EA) and all related permits to drill its first exploratory well, which it hopes to begin pre-Christmas 2020 in waters some 80 miles west of Andros close to the Bahamas' maritime boundary with Cuba.
But, while BPC has steadfastly maintained that its environmental submissions are fully compliant with Bahamian law and international standards/best practices, Our Islands, Our Future said an analysis of the EIA and EMP that it commissioned from Dr William J. Rogers, of Omega EnviroSolutions, highlighted at least five areas containing alleged flaws.
The group, whose main participants are the Bahamas Reef Environment Education Foundation (BREEF) and Waterkeepers Bahamas, argued the deficiencies it had identified should be sufficient cause for Dr Minnis to "immediately cancel all existing licenses" for oil exploration - including those of BPC.
Noting that its petition opposing BPC's activities has obtained more than 40,000 signatures, Our Islands, Our Future said it was providing the Government with "important and relevant information" to help it "make the best decision for the future of The Bahamas and its coastal economy, which generates $7.696bn and supports 122,257 jobs".
Casuarina McKinney–Lambert, BREEF's executive director, told Tribune Business that the economic output and jobs data, produced for the coalition through an analysis by Anthony Rogers of Sea Change Economics, related mostly to the potential impacts from any spill on the tourism and fisheries industries.
"Given the current economic situation, we most certainly cannot afford to jeopardise these industries that are important for lives, livelihoods and food security," Mrs McKinney–Lambert told this newspaper. "The risk is too great."
Away from the economic effects, the Our Islands, Our Future coalition mounted a full-scale assault on BPC's environmental studies and submissions in a sign that oil exploration opponents are intensifying their efforts to halt the company's activities with its first exploratory well likely less than two months away.
"BPC is not mitigating their risk, they are not adequately protecting us from an oil disaster, nor are they prepared to respond to one," the group argued, drawing on the assessment carried out by Dr William J. Rogers.
This critcised the EIA for a "lack of cumulative impact analysis", or what it described as the 'one bite-free approach'. "If an EIA only analyses a single project in isolation, it fails to consider or disclose the magnitude of cumulative impacts, which can be severe," Our Islands, Our Future said.
"In this case the EIA is at times referring to a single exploratory well, and at times a series of three exploratory wells, but it completely fails to show how it relates to a full drilling programme that includes production and pumping of oil at multiple locations, as well as storage and transfer of crude oil from producing wells."
The coalition also argued that BPC's submissions did not address how it would mitigate "toxic discharges" of barite and heavy metals that it alleged are associated with water-based drilling and cutting, and would impact the ocean floor.
And it also suggested that the oil spill recovery plan was inadequate, asserting: "This is not acceptable considering the sensitivity and uniqueness of the potentially-impacted habitats and natural resources. There are no plans for oil recovery using oil skimming equipment, nor to utilise oil booming to protect sensitive areas in the event of a spill.
"There is no discussion on how a spill with multi-international implications would be managed, or who would assume 'command' in such an event. BPC has not addressed the response capacities of The Bahamas, Cuba or the exposed parts of the US coastline, nor identified the need for any capacity building in these areas."
Finally, Our Islands, Our Future alleged there was "no discussion of protecting vulnerable, threatened or endangered species, or unique and vulnerable areas" in BPC's submissions. "The EIA and EMP fail to identify irreplaceable, unique and sensitive areas, which oil fate and transport modeling has shown will reach The Bahamas, Cuba and the US under realistic unplanned events (blowouts and spills)," it said.
"There is no discussion of protective booming of sensitive areas or how entities managing those resources would be involved in the response. The EIA and EMP have not addressed the small spill, and catastrophic oil spill, reproductive effects of surface oil on breeding birds (oiling) and the potential impacts of oil inhalation by surfacing sea mammals, many of which are endangered, threatened or vulnerable."
BPC's EIA and EMP, though, have already been approved by the Government as part of the Environmental Authorisation granted earlier this year. The company has repeatedly said it has mitigated all risks associated with its exploratory drilling, including spills and pollution, to an irreducible minimum through its near-13 years in The Bahamas.
Roberta Quant, BPC's environmental scientist, was recently critical of some of the concerns and allegations being voiced, arguing that "fear-based sensationalism should not replace facts and science" when it came to analysing the company's project.
"On a fact-based risk assessment of the science and proposed operations of BPC, the chance of an oil spill would have to be considered extremely minimal," she explained. "That said, 'prevention is better than cure'.
"BPC has thus taken extensive steps to ensure a process that seeks a full protection of marine life and the natural environment through extensive planning, management, experience and use of cutting-edge technology."
Ms Quant said the project had met all standards set by the World Bank and International Finance Corporation, as well as those of the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC) and International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (OGP).
That, though, is unlikely to satisfy Our Islands, Our Future and other activist groups. The former warned the Prime Minister: "We cannot afford to put our nation’s future at risk, nor risk our invaluable tourism reputation if we are tied to a devastating accident.
"Your timely decision to stop drilling, along with the voices of over 40,000 individuals from The Bahamas and all over the world who have already signed our petition, will send a clear message that we highly value and intend to protect the essential biodiversity that exists in The Bahamas, which supports our livelihoods and contributes significantly to our Gross Domestic Product.
"Beyond the imminent risk of toxic discharges and oil spills, our nation is unfortunately already one of the 'first and worst' hit by the increasing impacts of global climate change," Our Islands, Our Future added.
"We are already - and will continue to - experience heightening effects of sea level rise, ocean acidification and catastrophic storms of intensifying magnitude. How will we call on others to do their part to protect our atmosphere and oceans that we rely on if we simultaneously approve drilling for oil in our waters?
"We respectfully urge you to invoke your authority to make an urgent decision to cancel existing licenses immediately, disregard any license renewal proposals and place a permanent ban on offshore oil drilling in The Bahamas. Let us be known for pristine waterways and our commitment to a sustainable economy, not dirty fossil fuels or another uncontrolled and costly oil disaster."