MOSCOW (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 22nd January, 2023) Offshore oil exploration in Guyana is not only necessary for lifting the country's living standards but can also support Guyana's low carbon development pledge if US oil giant ExxonMobil supports local conservation efforts, a Guyanese environmental activist told Sputnik.
Born in an indigenous family in Guyana, Annette Arjoon-Martins fell in love with the beautiful scenes in the country on South America's northeast coast from an early age. Unsurprisingly, she spent the next 40 years fighting to preserve the gorgeous nature in her home country.
"I'm indigenous and I grew up in the interior of Guyana, where I was surrounded by nature and environment at a very early age. That instilled in me an affiliation with the environment, as well as the spirit for preservation and environmentally responsible management. I'm the founder of the Guyana Marine Conservation Society and I have been doing conservation work for 40 years," the environmental activist told Sputnik.
When she heard the news that US oil giant ExxonMobil planned to develop the offshore oil fields discovered about 120 miles from the coast of Guyana, Arjoon-Martins tried her best to get involved in the early debate on the environmental impact of this mega project.
During the first public hearing on the environmental impact assessment of the offshore oil project ExxonMobil held in 2017, Arjoon-Martins voiced concerns over whether the US oil giant was sharing enough information with local marine biologists in Guyana.
"In 2017, two years before we produced oil, when Exxon held the first public hearing for the first environmental impact assessment, it was very clear to me that in the simple area of (Guyanese) protected species observers could have benefited from communicating with their (ExxonMobil's) protected species observers, who are coming from overseas at the time, when they came back on shore. And I begged for that to happen," she said.
The advocate argued that the international experts hired by ExxonMobil may not care about the environment in Guyana as much as the local activists who would continue living and working in the country.
"With all due respect, when you have international companies coming in to do that (data collection), without involvement of Guyanese, we have no way of validating their data. They don't live here. They don't care if our marine environment is changing in a way that warrants attention. That's because, at the end of the day, we have to eat the fish from the affected area, right? You can't just do environmental assessments and immediately go back to North America or wherever you live," she said.
Fortunately, the government in Guyana introduced a series of requirements that forced the international service providers to work with local marine biologists and ExxonMobil even agreed to train three members of her team, Arjoon-Martins added.
After rich oil reserves were discovered in the offshore area, known as the Stabroek Block, in 2015, ExxonMobil started oil production in the area in December 2019. The US oil giant is currently producing about 340,000 barrels of oil per day from the phase 1 and phase 2 of the Liza project, while the planned Payara project and the Yellowtail project are expected to add a combined daily production capacity of 470,000 barrels.
Revenues from the offshore oil production were also expected to offer a much-needed boost to financial capacity of the government in Guyana, which used to be one of the poorest countries in South America.
According to the latest fiscal budget released by the government in Guyana, the 2022 budget stood at 552.9 billion Guyanese Dollars (about $2.65 billion), up by 44.3% from the budget for 2021. Oil revenues contributed 126.7 billion Guyanese dollars, or 22.9%, to the overall budget for the first time.
However, before oil revenues became an important part of Guyana's annual fiscal budget, the South American country used to be widely known for the Low Carbon Development Strategy championed by Dr. Bharrat Jagdeo, who was the country's president at the time and is currently serving as vice-president.
In November 2009, Guyana signed an agreement with Norway to secure $250 million of payment from the Northern European country by promising to avoid deforestation. The deal was hailed as a historic milestone as Guyana became the first country to sell carbon credits.
US-owned Hess Corporation, which owns about 30% of Guyana's offshore oil projects, signed a new deal in December 2022 to buy $750 million worth of carbon credits from the South American country over the next decade.
For a country that is a global pioneer in selling carbon credits, Guyana appears to be facing an ethical dilemma as it also tried to benefit from the offshore oil projects which would definitely contribute to the global fossil fuel consumption.
Arjoon-Martins argued that Guyana, as a developing country, had to prioritize improving the living standards of its citizens.
"Guyana was a poor, highly vulnerable, third-world developing nation. We have high levels of unemployment. The area that I work in, we have indigenous peoples that are existing on, almost like, just to be able to eat every day. The reality is: if we have been blessed with a resource, whether its forest or fossil fuels, the same way China, Russia, or Norway had. That was what allowed them develop their countries to what they are today. Their citizens were able to live a decent standard of life. Why should Guyana be different? Why should we have every year increasing numbers of people that are below the poverty line?" she said.
The advocate added that even if Guyana did not develop the offshore oil fields, other countries would continue to develop oil resources on their territories and the global oil supply would not be very different.
Arjoon-Martins went on to explain how the oil resources could turn Guyana's fortune around and help the country avoid the dire situation in neighboring Haiti.
"We could have used the resources to lift our people out of poverty, to diversify our economy even further and ramp up tourism. We have the best tourism product. We have a blessed fertile land. We could have developed agriculture. Without the resources, where do we get that from? Do we want to end up like Haiti, where people start chopping down all the trees for firewood to cook their meals? and then we end up feeling like Haiti. It's a hard decision, you know?" she said.
Even the Guyana Marine Conservation Society, the origination that Arjoon-Martins founded and continued to lead, received additional funding from the conservation initiatives as part of ExxonMobil's environmental pledges.
"Out of the Guyana Conservation Initiative, they reached out to us to find out how we could benefit under that program. Last year, we got $50,000, which allowed us to buy a boat and engine for our marine research center. We're grateful for it," she said.
Nevertheless, the activist stressed that the US oil giant should have contributed a lot more to local NGOs like hers to help build up the independent monitoring capacity for the area in the ocean that could face environmental fallout from the offshore oil projects.
"But in my opinion, the sort of work that we're doing in a meaningful way, we should be getting $500,000 a year. ExxonMobil should be giving us a subvention of $500,000 a year at a minimum to do meaningful offshore work. That's what I would like to see because that's a drop in the billions of US dollars ExxonMobil is generating from Guyanese resources," she said.
The advocate explained that the offshore oil projects were located too far from the coast of Guyana for marine biologists from her organization to reach and properly monitor possible changes in the environment.