By David Jessop
Intensely national in character, environmental protest is on the rise across the Caribbean. From French Guiana, to Suriname, Guyana, Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Jamaica, The Bahamas, Cayman, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere, local groups and eco-friendly coalitions of interest are becoming increasingly vocal and litigious.
Their concern primarily relates to extractive industries, reflecting the rapid recent rise in external investment in the recovery and search for offshore oil and gas and exploitation of onshore mineral deposits. This year has also seen activists opposing ill-considered mega-resorts and beachfront proposals, the development of ecologically sensitive sites, and objecting to potentially reef-damaging investments in new cruise terminals.
Such concerns seem set to grow as governments, faced with the challenge of delivering post COVID economic recovery, find themselves caught between agreeing to projects that will generate new sources of revenue and employment, and making unpopular technical decisions relating to the environmental damage that new investments may cause.
The Bahamas, one such decision is causing many citizens to become conflicted over what is best for an island chain that up to now has almost wholly been dependent on tourism.
The Bahamas Petroleum Company (BPC) an Isle of Man headquartered company, intends beginning operations this month on its Perseverance#1 well on its deep-water Cooper license, about 90 miles South West of the island of Andros and not far from the country’s maritime border with Cuba.
The decision by government to allow this is being legally challenged by an umbrella environmental group ‘Our Islands, Our Future’. It is seeking an injunction if the company does not halt its planned activities pending a judicial review of the environmental authorisation that allowed it to prospect.
The group argue that the project should be legally halted on the basis that the environmental impact assessment for the project was flawed, and there was a lack of proper consultation. It has also expressed concern about the absence of dialogue with the Bahamian government and has called for transparency in relation to the drilling licenses, BPC’s insurance coverage, and its environmental sensitivity mapping.
In response, BPC has questioned why it has taken so long to bring the legal challenge when its intentions were known earlier this year, arguing that all the necessary precautions required are in place. It also emphasises that once scientific tests on the exploratory well establish whether oil is present on not, it will be permanently sealed.
In a strongly-worded statement, the company’s chief executive, Simon Potter, suggested that the activist environmental group was challenging “the sovereign right” of the Bahamian government to determine whether a potentially substantial natural resource exists within its maritime boundaries. He also asserted that “a silent multitude of Bahamians are in favour of knowing whether commercial oil reserves exist in The Bahamas”, noting that a successful discovery could boost government revenues by billions in royalties and create new contracts and employment. Previously BPC has indicated oil in commercial quantities could generate up to US$5 billion in revenues over a 10-20-year period.
Paradoxically, the surge in interest in undersea Caribbean oil and gas comes at a time when the world appears to be moving towards binding commitments on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions principally caused by the hydrocarbons now being sought and found across the region. It is also happening when there is a growing consensus that non-renewable forms of energy have a limited future and as many oil majors are diversifying and channelling revenues into sustainable power sources.
It is also happening just as the political environment in relation to global warming is changing.
A few days ago, Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general delivered a speech in which he stressed the urgent need for climate action. Observing in unusually direct terms that “humanity is waging war on nature” he told governments that the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and the 2016 Paris climate accord provided solutions but that “global solidarity” was required in “the pivotal period ahead”.
His remarks came soon after the US president-elect Joe Biden had named John Kerry, a former Secretary of State, to be his cabinet-level special presidential envoy on climate change, and made the issue one of US national security. Biden has also committed to signing on his first day in office an executive order that will see the US re-join the climate change accord; convene within 100 days a global summit; see the US achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050; and commit US$2 trillion to greening US transportation, power generation, construction and infrastructure.
This suggests that for the president-elect addressing climate change is to be an overarching theme during his presidential term: an issue that can repurpose multilateralism and interdependence and restore western trust in US leadership.
During the Obama presidency, despite strategic differences, the US and China were able to agree to work together on actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This may be possible again.
In September, China established a timetable for carbon neutrality that is like Bidens, potentially offering a bridge to more normal relations. Then, speaking to the UN General Assembly by video link, president Xi said that China’s objective is to “have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060”. He also argued that post-pandemic the world should focus on a green recovery for the world economy, comments widely interpreted as meaning that his government and China’s capital markets and investors operating overseas, will in future pay much more attention to their impact on climate change.
These issues will come to a head when the next full UN climate summit takes place in Scotland in December 2021. There, all countries are expected to submit their new long-term goals; agree rules for a carbon market; and agree on a process of implementation of the Paris Agreement.
For the first time for four years, there is the real hope that global warming may be addressed in a manner that provides long-term certainty for the Caribbean and other low lying and small island states.
Major hydrocarbon finds, the continuing wave of prospecting across the Caribbean, growing environmental activism, concerns about post-COVID economic recovery, the willingness of the US and China to commit to climate reduction targets, and a limited future for hydrocarbons, however, all suggest that the regional response requires greater definition and a new narrative.