By TANYA SMITH-CARTWRIGHT
Despite cries from environmentalists Bahamas Petroleum Company has pressed ahead with its oil excavation in Bahamian waters, confident its operations are covered by an iron-clad agreement which now leaves the Government and people of The Bahamas with no say.
Details of the BPC deal, which was signed off under the last Progressive Liberal Party government headed by Perry Christie, are sketchy. The deal seems virtually irreversible with Cabinet Minister responsible for investments, Elsworth Johnson, saying he “did every contortion” to try to legally get out of the agreement to no avail.
In a letter dated December 17, 2020, addressed to Prime Minister, Dr Hubert Minnis and Minister of the Environment and House, Romauld Ferreira, some 17 United States Congressmen and Congresswomen urged The Bahamas government to reconsider its agreement with BPC and also questioned the company’s and the government’s capacity to mitigate a serious disaster.
Since that letter was written, Prime Minister Minnis has said it is not his dream to drill for oil in Bahamian waters and he insisted he remains “totally against” it. However, once again, the “iron-clad nature” of this deal came up and environmentalists and Bahamians alike, have been expressing their displeasure.
Not quite sure what enticed the former administration to sign off on such an “irreversible” deal that risks pristine Bahamian waters to spillage, The Tribune spoke to several Cabinet Ministers to seek their views on the excavation and if the matter should have gone to a referendum before the signing. Were they opposed to drilling like the Prime Minister?
Minister of Health Renward Wells said flat out the FNM does not support oil drilling in Bahamian waters, but is legally bound by the deal the PLP signed.
Minister Wells said: “A Cabinet Minister’s position is the position of the Cabinet of The Bahamas, which is the FNM does not support oil drilling.
“We are allowing the drilling to take place because of the agreement that is in place. My position is if there is an agreement for not just drilling and exploratory wells, but also for extraction of that material – that is the material of the Bahamian people and the country is going to bear the lion’s share of the potential risk of any adverse event that might take place in regards to oil spillage.
“We have a very pristine environment to protect and if we are going to be the ones that could be potentially adversely affected then we ought to be the ones to enjoy the lion’s share of any particular resource. In regards to taking it to referendum, as a Cabinet Minister I cannot speak to that issue right now. Collectively the Cabinet would make such a decision.”
More cautious, Minister of Environment and Housing, Romauld Ferreira, declined to comment on the situation at hand, but instead said he would rather have a conversation about legislation to prevent such situations as this one.
Minister of Works, Desmond Bannister also declined to state a personal view on drilling: “Cabinet Ministers do not express opinions with respect to matters that Cabinet has taken a position on. The PM has gone on record with respect to the Government’s position on this matter,” said Mr Bannister.
Social Services Minister Frankie Campbell said he would welcome a referendum on the issue.
“I share the collective view of the Cabinet on oil drilling. That said, I won’t oppose a referendum. I believe it’s the people’s things and I won’t oppose the people having a say,” he said
Michael Pintard, Minister of Agriculture and Marine Resources, said although there is modern technology that is supposed to prevent spillage in excavations, there is still a risk.
He said: “I am on the record of saying where I sit at the moment, having carriage of marine resources, I believe that that particular sector holds huge potential for economic development for The Bahamas as well as wealth creation. We have an environment that requires a strategic plan for the development of the Blue Economy. It is a shared environment that straddles multiple ministries and we ought to be engaging in a broad discussion.
“The potential of oil existing is but one component of that overall study. Some previous administration unfortunately sent us, to some extent, into this, but it does not change my view that there are some other steps that we ought to be taking as a country to ensure sustainability of our environment. I do not see oil as being one of those priorities. Obviously it would be good to know that we have that as an asset. It’s quite possible that some agreement has been signed that goes beyond just the discovery and that persons may have additional rights.”
Minister of Foreign Affairs Darren Henfield is not in agreement with oil drilling in Bahamian waters.
He said: “The Bahamas is a country of laws. It seems like this deal with The Bahamas government, be it PLP or whomever, is iron clad. The constitution speaks very clearly of what requires a referendum or not. I am on the record as saying I do not agree with drilling in The Bahamas, as I think it is too dangerous for our environment.
“I think we stand to lose too much if something goes awry – our marine environment, our touristic economy. There is too much at stake. The Bahamas, I believe, serves as the maritime breadbasket for this region. Our creeks and mangroves are priceless. I don’t agree with it.”
Minister of Education Jeffrey Lloyd had little to say on the matter.
He said: “My position is whatever the position the Cabinet has. I don’t have a personal position on whether it should have gone to referendum, but I think the government would make that decision and not any individual minister.
The last Cabinet Minister to comment on the matter was Minister of Public Service and National Insurance Brensil Rolle.
“My position is consistent with the Cabinet’s position. Cabinet has already made a statement on its position on oil drilling. I am a part of the Cabinet and a part of the decision-making process. I don’t know how something goes to referendum when a contract is already signed. The legal binding position was taken when the government signed the contract,” said Mr Rolle.
Minister of National Security Marvin Dames was asked the same questions through one of his Ministry’s Public Relations Officers, sent several questions back through the same officer for The Tribune. He eventually did not answer.
The Tribune made many attempts to contact the remaining Cabinet Ministers for their views, however, they were inaccessible.
Several environmental groups have claimed BPC does not have the funding to carry out its excavation in The Bahamas, but the company’s non-executive deputy chairman, James Smith, has categorically denied the claim.
Mr Smith is the only Bahamian on BPC’s board of directors,. He is a former Governor of the Central Bank and also Minister of State for Finance in the Christie administration, 2002-2007. He serves as non-executive deputy chairman. Other members of the board are, Bill Scharder, non-executive chairman; Simon Potter, chief executive officer; Adrian Collins, non-executive director; Ross McDonald, non-executive director and Leo Koot, non-executive director.
Two Bahamians are a part of senior management at BPC, Senator Jobeth Coleby-Davis, who serves as the company’s legal counsel, and Roberta Quant is an environmental scientist.
BPC, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange and trades as part of a Mutual Fund listed on The Bahamas International Stock Exchange, said in a company statement its current focus is its five licences for hydrocarbon exploration covering approximately 16,000 km2 (4 million acres) in the territorial waters of The Bahamas. The Company has four exploration licences in the southern territorial waters of The Bahamas, referred to as Bain, Cooper, Donaldson and Eneas.