By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamas Petroleum Company (BPC) was yesterday warned "not to presume that Bahamians will collapse and sacrifice the world's most successful per capita tourism industry" even if oil is discovered.
Fred Smith QC, the Callenders & Co attorney and partner who is representing environmental activists in their Judicial Review challenge to BPC's exploratory drilling permits, told Tribune Business that the oil explorer's chief executive, Simon Potter, was "missing the point" when he asserted that The Bahamas will discover within four to six weeks whether it is "an oil rich nation".
The outspoken QC argued that there was no certainty, even if BPC discovered commercial quantities of extractable oil below this nation's seabed, that the Government or Bahamian people would permit commercial production given the potential risk to the marine and land environment that is the country's greatest economic asset.
"Even if we have oil we don't want to destroy our tourism economy," Mr Smith argued. "Mr Potter should not disregard us by devaluing the main industry of The Bahamas, which is the ability to convert its beauty, pristine environment and marine resources into desirable tourism and eco-tourism projects, marinas and all kinds of developments where people come to enjoy our beautiful environment.
"Even if he finds oil, don't presume to assume that the Bahamians will simply collapse and allow oil prospectors to destroy our environment. All I can say to him is: 'No way, Jose'.
"We have seven million visitors a year in a country where the population is just under 400,000. Per capita the Bahamas probably has the most successful tourism industry in the world, and we don't want that spoiled even if there's oil."
Mr Smith hit back after Mr Potter and BPC, following the Supreme Court's rejection of a "stay" that would halt ongoing drilling of their Perseverance One exploratory well in waters 90 miles west of Andros, said they were confident that all legal obstacles to its completion within the targeted 45-60 day timeframe had been removed.
They argued that Justice Petra Hanna-Adderley's decision not to grant a "stay" that would have halted its Perseverance One well meant Bahamians will "likely know within four to six weeks whether they are an oil-rich nation".
While the Supreme Court gave BPC's opponents permission to proceed with their Judicial Review challenge to the project's permits and approvals, the hearing on the merits of their claim will likely only take place between February 17-18 at the earliest.
Given that Perseverance One, which has been spud in waters 90 miles west of Andros, started on December 20, 2020, and is estimated to take between 45-60 days to complete, there is every possibility that exploratory drilling will have finished or be near to finishing by the time the court date comes around. The February 17, 2021, date is some 59 days after the drilling started.
Some observers would likely argue that all arguments over oil exploration in Bahamian waters are premature until BPC discloses the Perseverance One results. They believe The Bahamas should first determine whether it has a new natural resource in oil, and then decide whether to permit commercial exploitation and extraction.
This line of thinking suggests that The Bahamas, especially post-COVID-19 and Hurricane Dorian, cannot afford to turn its back on a potential new industry and source of possible multi-billion dollar royalty revenue for the Government and any sovereign wealth fund.
Others, though, including Waterkeepers Bahamas and Save the Bays, which brought the Judicial Review action, argue that permitting an oil industry in The Bahamas is simply too great a risk to take, given the potential pollution threats to an environment that sustains the near-$8bn annual economic output of tourism and financial services.
Mr Smith yesterday argued that such a move would go against the Prime Minister's plea at the United Nations (UN) for all countries to meet the challenge presented by climate change, which is having a disproportionate impact on small island states such as The Bahamas as measured by Hurricane Dorian.
"There's no sense in finding oil and contributing to the destruction of the environment," he said. "It goes completely against the Prime Minister's wishes, and those of his government. It goes completely against all the commitments that The Bahamas has signed on to regarding environmental protection and mitigating climate change."
Joe Darville, chairman of Save the Bays, one of the two environmental groups bringing the action, described himself as "ecstatic" over yesterday's ruling. He added: "Oil drilling should not proceed if it is not conducted in accordance with the law and not in the best interest of our people.
"A key part of the mission of Save the Bays is to fight against the scourge of unregulated development, and ensure that every foreign investor who comes here with a plan acts according to the laws of The Bahamas and in the best interest of the people. We intend to hold BPC to that standard."
However, Casuarina McKinney, the Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation (BREEF) executive director, was more circumspect.
She told Tribune Business: "The judge's decision to allow the Judicial Review to proceed is a huge victory for the environment and for the rights of Bahamians to be heard on something that affects all of us.
"We are very concerned that the drilling rig is still continuing off the west side of Andros because of the impact to the environment that is happening right now.... Oil drilling in our waters is a serious threat to current and future generations of Bahamians and needs to be considered very carefully, not rushed into under a cloud of secrecy.'