Guyanese voice fears over true cost of Exxon’s oil bonanza
Guyana is set to get a windfall from its oil resources, but there are concerns about the environmental impact of drilling in the country.

THERE are worries that a multi-billion-dollar deal promising to lift Guyana out of poverty may be a false dawn with dire impact on climate.

The concern was raised by Annette Arjoon, a marine conservationist, who, in an article published by UK-based The Guardian newspaper on Thursday, said while the new oilfields off Guyana’s coast is a “blessing” that will earn billions of dollars for one of the poorest countries in the Caribbean, added that pulling yet more fossil fuel from the ground will deepen the climate crisis.

As ExxonMobil, the US-based petroleum giant, began drilling a vast oilfield offshore two years ago, the Guyanese Government called in the Amerindian marine conservationist to help monitor the environmental impact of what is expected to become the company’s biggest source of petroleum by 2025, outpacing even its wells sprawled across Texas.

The report said after observation, Arjoon, who leads the Guyana Marine Conservation Society, was not impressed. In time she grew to believe that Exxon was indifferent to the dangers of an oil spill to the coast and rivers of one of the best preserved parts of the Amazon biome, and of misleading her about its preparations to deal with such a disaster. She found the company’s behaviour “thuggish and disrespectful”.

“I can only judge Exxon by my direct and deeply personal relationship with them so far. They are not an honourable company,” Arjoon is quoted as saying.

Suspicion about the oil firm does not stop with environmentalists. Guyanese politicians have accused Exxon of fleecing the country of billions of dollars by bouncing an ill-experienced government into a contract that pays far less than other countries earn from their oil.

Then there is the pressing question of the future of the planet. With Guyana increasingly threatened by rising sea levels, Arjoon is conscious of the impact of Exxon opening a huge oilfield at a time when governments are being warned there can be no new oil or gas fields or coalmines if the world is to reach net zero by 2050.

Yet for all that, Arjoon is glad to see the oil flowing because right now, she says, Guyana does not have any other way forward. “As an environmentalist with 35 years of experience in coastal communities through the length and breadth of Guyana, I see extreme poverty. Oil gives us a way out of that.”

This drilling bonanza promises to earn Guyana roughly US$150 billion over the life of the oilfields, estimated at 30 years. For good or ill, that represents a huge change in fortune for a country of 800,000 people, where more than 40 per cent live below the poverty line of US$5.50 a day.

“All of those that have exploited their oil resources to develop their countries should not be telling Guyana ‘leave your oil in the ground’,” Arjoon told the Guardian.

“Norway is always used as the best example of a nation that utilises oil, and it is said that they have the best model for natural resources. So why should Guyana be any different? Who is to say that little Guyana, which has been blessed with so much abundant resources including oil, should not take advantage?”

Others agree. There is a bittersweet sense that Guyana needs to hurry and get the oil out of the ground if it does not want to miss the fossil fuel party.

Others look to the experience of Equatorial Guinea, which enjoyed an oil bonanza that in less than a decade transformed it from one of the world’s poorest countries to the highest per capita income in Africa by 2008. But Human Rights Watch describes Equatorial Guinea’s oil wealth as “squandered and stolen” by the government, resulting in declines in healthcare and access to education.

Vincent Adams, the former head of Guyana’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), says that should serve as a warning to Guyana as payments to its oil fund soar to nearly US$1b this year, permitting the Government to increase its budget by 44 per cent.

Confidence has also been undercut by the widely held belief that Exxon bounced a government lacking in expertise and desperate for money into a contract that serves the country badly, with the global human rights group Global Witness estimating that Guyana will earn about $50b less than it would have done under a more common type of agreement.

A Guardian/Floodlight investigation last year found grave concern among experts about the contract signed by the Guyanese government. Adams told The Guardian he warned the Government against the contract but it was afraid Exxon would walk away.

The deal allows Exxon to deduct up to 75 per cent of the earnings from its Guyanese wells as costs before the balance is split between the Government and the company. It recently presented Guyana with a bill of more than $9b for those costs, which the Government admits it does not have the resources to audit.

Guyana’s sovereign fund from oil revenues is set to reach US$1bn this year.

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