INSIGHT: Oban's another bitter pill for us all to swallow


Attorney Fred Smith.

By Frederick Smith, QC

The rapid fall from grace of this FNM government is becoming painful to watch. Especially for a long-time supporter like myself, the Minnis administration’s departure from its party’s fundamental ideals and their own campaign promises has been a bitter pill to swallow. Yet none of the misdeeds, missteps or missed opportunities of the past nine months is quite as alarming as the toxic and dangerous mess that is the Oban oil refinery deal.

While much of what came before could be put down to the naiveté of a freshman government trying to find its feet, this unholy pact signals something far more sinister. It reveals that despite all the talk of being different, of representing true democracy in the interests of the people, the Minnis administration turns out to be very same dictatorial wolf we know so well, just in slightly more sheep-like clothing.

The FNM promised the Bahamian people that if elected, they would put an end to shady secret deals with foreign investors of questionable reputation. Such deals have been the hallmark of all previous administrations and have been among the chief causes of this country’s failure to empower its citizenry and meet its economic potential over the past five decades.

The Oban deal demonstrates this allegedly new-look FNM has no problem continuing to cut clandestine deals which do far more harm than good to the interests of the public. It is proof that despite our dreams of a new start, The Bahamas is already back to business as usual.

Transparency and rule of law?

As Bahamians are now well aware, those who constitute the public face of the deal have been accused of fraud and one even faced felony charges in the United States. Today, the “real people behind the deal” still remain nowhere to be seen. Why all the secrecy? Where is the transparency and accountability we were promised?

Just as in past administrations, the public knew nothing of this deal until it was suddenly announced, in typical inflated and triumphalist fashion, to the media. The Heads of Agreement (HOA) has been signed, yet Oban has not conducted an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as mandated by law.

The law also stipulates that such a project would require prior consultation with affected persons – which in the case of something as potentially dangerous as an oil refinery, means everyone on Grand Bahama and even residents of surrounding islands. Yet this has not taken place. Nor is there a Land Use Plan (LUP), another prerequisite of the law, specifically the Planning and Subdivision Act.

The message is clear: this FNM government is ready and willing to make secret arrangements that could pose serious risks to the lives of safety of Bahamians, before even knowing what level of impact it may have on our precious natural resources, and regardless of what the local community may think.

High risk, low reward

The risks involved with petroleum facilities are well known. Small scale spills and accidents are routine and in the long-term, these will impact the coastlines and coral reefs upon which local tourism depends, our fisheries resources which provide the livelihood for so many Bahamians and the island’s aquifer which we all rely on for our water supply.

Meanwhile, the prospect of a major disaster is always looming. In fact, the entire business plan of a facility such as this speaks directly to the terrible danger. An oil processing operation off the coast of Florida is an attractive venture, from a foreign investor’s point of view, precisely because Floridians are reluctant to allow a facility of this kind on their own shores.

And no wonder. Oil refineries are well known for polluting the air, water, and land. Experts have pointed out that up to 100 pollutants can be emitted into the atmosphere from the stacks and leaking equipment. Meanwhile, the large amount of waste produced by these facilities must be dumped somewhere, presumably on the land, and spills discharge chemical pollutants into the water. Again, with no EIA, we have no idea if there is even a credible plan to deal with these realities.

The highly flammable nature of the product itself means that fire and explosion are always a serious risk. A multitude of studies demonstrate there are higher rates of cancer and other diseases in communities near oil refineries, and these studies looked at refineries located in countries where emissions are strictly regulated, whereas in The Bahamas, the government has yet to enact any such standards.

Again the message is unmistakable: The associated risks are considered too great for Florida; but our natural resources, economy and quality of life are far less important and therefore expendable. Under this deal, Grand Bahamians will be sacrificing their island to supply fuel to South Floridians who face zero risk to themselves or their own community. What happened to the FNM’s promise of protecting the environment and using the natural resources of the Bahamas responsibly? Where is the Environmental Protection Act promised in their manifesto?

Of course, the government has attempted to sell this deal to the public with the usual mantra of “jobs, jobs, jobs!” but Grand Bahamians already know what they are in for. The now defunct BORCO oil facility was also billed as a great generator of employment but in the end, hundreds of lucrative jobs went to foreign experts while Bahamians were left with the low-hanging menial fruit.

Oil refineries need specialist chemists and bio-engineers. It is unrealistic to expect that we have anywhere near the number of experts needed to run such a facility. There may be a handful of appropriately trained Bahamians, but the vast majority of those employed by Oban will take low paying jobs which will nevertheless pose great risks to their health and safety. Jobs in the oil and gas industry are among the most dangerous in the world.

A slap in the face

In its manifesto, the FNM paid lip-service to self-determination and “deepening democracy”. Yet the Oban deal represents an outright crime against this concept generally, and a direct slap in the face of Grand Bahamians in particular. Once again, central government is sitting in Nassau dictatorially plotting the fate of Family Islanders without consulting or even informing them.

Once again, the Cabinet of The Bahamas is running roughshod over the Hawksbill Agreement, which declares Freeport the industrial capital of Grand Bahama and the engine which should drive prosperity and good governance across the whole island. By allowing the Oban facility to be located outside Freeport, the government is cancelling out all the financial benefits that would accrue to Grand Bahama from the deal and ensuring the foreign developers are able to ship all the profits to another jurisdiction.

What the FNM has signed up for, then, is a project that will unquestionably cause significant environmental destruction, could ruin our fisheries and do serious harm to our tourism product while employing mostly foreigners, risking the safety of Bahamians and exporting the profits out of the country. And, because it is business as usual the developers have been offered the usual cocktail of cheap Crown Land, work permits and assorted lengthy tax exemptions. A sweet deal indeed!

The claim by Oban and the government is an EIA is on the way. No doubt they will claim next that public consultation is about to take place ahead of the company obtaining the statutorily required permits, but this is nothing more than a sham. Regulatory bodies always follow the lead of the Cabinet, meaning the minute the HOA was signed (whether by Satpal Dhunna or Peter Krieger), the project was essentially a done deal and any subsequent approval or permit is nothing more than a cynical rubber stamp.

If the government cared about the results of environmental tests, or about what Bahamians think, why not wait until after the EIA and public consultation to sign the HOA? What happened to the FNM’s commitment to due process and pledge not to ride roughshod over the law like their predecessors?

The real question is, why the rush? Why is the Minnis Administration seeking to force this highly questionable deal through in the first place? It is as if, nearly a year after winning the most decisive election in the history of an independent Bahamas, they forgot to exit campaign mode.

But instead of looking in the mirror, government officials are quick to shoot the messenger and claim those who query such deals are the enemies of progress – as if Bahamians (and the Press) should ask no questions and look the other way when politicians appear to be selling our birthright to the latest invaders masquerading as investors. As if we should have learned nothing from recent history.

Runaway train

The Minnis Administration’s campaign promises met with unprecedented approval from the public. All they needed to do was follow their own plans and programmes to ensure at least one more term in office. Instead, the people’s time train has gone alarmingly and quite spectacularly off the tracks.

Somehow, this administration has landed itself back in the well-known territory of bad governance, dictatorship of the executive, and secret deals with shady foreign associates. We are back again to mega-projects that relegate Bahamians to the position of lowly pawns, while reaping huge rewards for invaders from outside and destroying the environment which we are supposed to be preserving for future generations to come. We are back to Crown Land giveaways to everyone and anyone but Bahamians; we are back to square one.

How did we get here?

Only Prime Minister Minnis and the members of his Cabinet can tell us. Whatever the reasons, if they want any chance at all of being seen to live up to their pledge of being different, of signalling the dawn of a new day for the Bahamas, these ladies and gentlemen must decide to adopt a radical change of course immediately.

It is time for the FNM to get back to basics and revisit their own Manifesto and election promises for inspiration regarding the way forward. It is time to put the people first and take decisive action against serious threats to their interests. Rejecting this half-baked oil refinery deal would be a great place to start.