* Activists: 'We can't afford to endanger economy'
* Say support has 'doubled in past three days'
* Calling on PM for 'permanent drilling ban'
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Environmental activists behind a 10,000-strong petition opposing oil drilling in Bahamian waters yesterday argued "we cannot afford to jeopardise our existing economic drivers" with such a "risky" venture.
Casuarina McKinney-Lambert, the Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation (BREEF) executive director, told Tribune Business the petition - which had gained 10,562 signatures by press time last night and is now targeting 15,000 - had seen support "double over the past three days".
Interpreting this as a signal that the Our Islands, Our Future campaign, which her group created in alliance with Waterkeepers Bahamas, is "gaining traction", Mrs McKinney-Lambert said the environmental and economic risks associated with the Bahamas Petroleum Company's (BPC) plans far offset the potential financial rewards in terms of royalties paid to this nation's sovereign wealth fund.
Dismissing arguments that The Bahamas cannot afford to pass up such opportunities amid the economic and fiscal devastation created by COVID-19, she replied: "This is precisely why we cannot afford to risk what we have."
Simon Potter, BPC's chief executive, in an e-mailed reply to this newspaper indicated he would respond to the petition and environmental concerns within the next few days. However, BPC has always pledged that the exploratory well it plans to drill in waters several hundred miles south-west of Andros will be "safe and responsible", and meet all local and international best practices.
This, though, cut little ice with Mrs McKinney-Lambert, who retorted: "I'm sure that's what BP said before the Deepwater Horizon." While BPC will likely argue that comparisons with this infamous incident are questionable at best, the BREEF chief argued: "The riskiest type of well is an exploratory well because you don't know what's down there."
Turning to the petition's progress, Mrs McKinney-Lambert told this newspaper: "We're very pleased with the attention it's getting locally and internationally, and we know there are a lot of people concerned about the proposal to drill for oil in our waters and have signed it.
"It certainly has the potential for a huge environmental impact and not much benefit for The Bahamas from what I've seen. I think the number of signatures has doubled in the last three days, so we're really getting a lot of traction.
"It's an environmental risk for The Bahamas and also for Florida, which put a moratorium in for the next ten years on oil drilling because of the risk to their economy. That's what they're concerned about, and what we want to consider in The Bahamas as well. It's a crude deal for The Bahamas; a very crude deal."
BPC's oil exploration activities have long been controversial with Bahamian public opinion split on the issue. While those in favour will argue that The Bahamas simply cannot afford to pass up this potential opportunity given the dire economic and fiscal straits it finds itself, Mrs McKinney-Lambert said: "It's the opposite. We cannot afford to jeopardise our existing economic drivers with something as risky as this.
"It's risking two of our major industries, tourism and fisheries, from an economic perspective. This is too important an issue to risk what they're [BPC] proposing. This is a high-polluting industry that we want to be very careful about. And it's not just us; it's coming from many different directions.
"The letter from a number of US congressmen and women to the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and the US Embassy charge d'affaires, Stephanie Bowers, expressed extreme concern. We would be liable for damages to Florida should we have a leak here. It's another economic risk."
Ms McKinney-Lambert added that it was contradictory for The Bahamas, one of the most vulnerable nations to climate change, to permit the very activities that were helping to drive this problem. "There are many, many more jobs in green industries and renewable energies than fossil fuels," she argued.
"In other countries like Belize, they determined the risks were too great to start offshore exploratory well drilling. Belize made the decision not to do that as they didn't want to risk their tourism and fisheries.
"I think it's in the interests of pretty much all Bahamians to get on board with this campaign and make sure it doesn't happen here. I have a lot of confidence."
The Our Islands, Our Future petition, which is located on the change.org website, calls on the Government and Dr Hubert Minnis to "cancel all existing oil exploration licenses, reject all proposed renewals and impose a permanent ban on fossil fuel exploration anywhere within our maritime borders".
Arguing that The Bahamas is at a "pivotal point" in its history, and that the Prime Minister has "one last chance" to protect the economy and country's natural resources, the petition added: "The critical threat posed by oil drilling to our world-renowned oceans, reefs and beaches cannot be exaggerated...... Simply put, drilling threatens our very way of life.
"We cannot afford to put our nation’s future at risk, nor risk its reputation being tied to a devastating accident. Help us urge Prime Minister Minnis to cancel existing licenses immediately, disregard any license renewal proposals and place an permanent ban on offshore oil drilling. 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."
The petition's signatories appear to be both local and international. Peter Carlyon said: "Oil exploration isn't what the Bahamas need. Leave it's splendor and beauty as untouched as possible." And Melanie Griffith added: "We must think of our grandchildren. We already know the harm offshore drilling can cause. It is past time to stop crapping in our home."
BPC, which now bills itself as a "full cycle" exploration and production business following its recently-completed merger with Columbus Energy Resources, said the recent extension of its Bahamian licence as granted by the Government had given it "sufficient certainty" to confirm drilling of its first exploratory well will start between December 15, 2020, and February 1, 2021.
The company believes drilling in waters south-west of Andros, close to the maritime border with Cuba, will begin in the early part of the December 15 to February 1 timeframe.
This would place completion of BPC's first exploratory well towards end-January or mid-February 2021, thus ensuring "the licence obligation will be fulfilled well in time for April" and the revised deadline. Based on a 45-60 day completion cycle, the well would be finished by early April at latest assuming a February 1 start, still inside its obligations.