Tourism operators seek oil exploration 'pull back'

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

Water-based tourism operators yesterday voiced optimism that the threat of legal action will force the Government to "pull back" on oil exploration with some revealing it has already cost them business.

Shawn Leadon, joint proprietor of Andros Island Bonefish Club, and head of Andros Outdoor Adventures, told Tribune Business that a 24-strong group booking from New York that was due to arrive during the first week in November had cancelled on the basis that The Bahamas appeared not to be taking eco-tourism seriously.

Expressing hope that the potential Judicial Review litigation, and injunction bid to halt Bahamas Petroleum Company's (BPC) first exploratory well, will increase "pressure" on the Minnis administration to reverse course, Mr Leadon said: "This is a very sensitive matter, so sensitive that just the perception alone damages my business and other businesses on the island because of the clientele we cater to.

"Having them halt the project, and taking legal action, is the right thing to do. I'm just hoping with all the pressure being put on government that they should pull back. This is exploration for something we don't know that we have. How is it that we burn a hole in what we have already to explore something else. It doesn't make sense to me. It's very damaging to my business. The perception alone is damaging."

Asked if he had suffered any tangible impacts yet, with BPC planning to spud its first exploratory well in waters more than 90 miles west of Andros beginning on December 15, 2020, Mr Leadon replied: "I have had a lot of cancellations due to the thought of that.

"Persons don't want to come into a situation where the environment is not taken care of. I had a big group of 24 that was due to come in during the first week of November, who are looking to lobby against this whole deal. A lot of guys in the group were talking about this not being the destination they want to go to.

"These guys are heavy hitters, and they're very disappointed in that regard. They've been coming here for 30 years and never once have they seen any indication that the Government was not taking this seriously. If the Government allows oil drilling in an eco-sensitive destination, they're not in tune with what an eco-sensitive destination is."

Neal Watson, owner of Neal Watson's Bimini Scuba Centre, voiced fears to Tribune Business that any oil spill would have an impact similar to Hurricane Dorian, where international media made it seem as if the entire Bahamas was impacted rather than just one island.

Backing the legal action threatened by the Our Islands, Our Future group and its allies, he said: "I'm supportive of anybody acting in the best interests of the environment and state of the environment.

"The Bahamas has been catching up on eco-tourism centric places like Costa Rica and Mexico, which have been doing it for some years. I'd hate to see any setback to the progress we have made in that sector from something potentially happening with that [oil drilling."

Mr Watson added that "the risk is high, especially for the eco-tourism sector; it's super, super high". However, he also urged the Government and BPC to be more transparent on the potential benefits from striking commercial oil quantities, and in particular detail how the Bahamian people might benefit and by how much, so a proper risk/reward assessment could be made.

"The way 2020 has been going, I'm just trying to stay in business and trying to keep food in the mouths of the people who work for me," Mr Watson said. "We're just trying to stay in business at this point."

Members of the Our Islands, Our Future group yesterday urged BPC to "cease and desist" from its oil drilling plans until their court action is heard. “To be clear, we intend to stop BPC from drilling in Bahamian waters,” said Rashema Ingraham, executive director of Waterkeeper Bahamas and member of the group's steering committee.

“We are very encouraged by the huge support, both local and international, that we continue to receive. Over 100 businesses and organisations have joined the Our Islands, Our Future coalition and 40,000 concerned individuals have signed the change.org petition. The petition numbers are growing every day.

“At the same time, we are disappointed with the lack of dialogue with the Bahamas government, and are finding it necessary to ask the courts of law to step in and examine the approvals process. The company has been duly put on notice; any further actions to pursue or accelerate its plans will be undertaken at its own risk," she added.

“The coalition had hoped to avoid legal action, which is why we wrote to the Prime Minister about our concerns several times but got no response. Now, as the drill ship is about to sail, we have been left with no choice.”

Fellow steering committee member, BREEF executive director, Casuarina McKinney-Lambert, said the group believe there were certain fundamental flaws in the approvals process, including a deficient Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and a lack of proper consultation at various stages, which means that BPC’s approvals need to be revisited.

“We have asked repeatedly to be consulted on the details of the deal, to see the drilling licences themselves, for access to more information on BPC’s insurance coverage and the environmental sensitivity maps they have supposedly compiled. It seems appealing to the courts is the only way to achieve some transparency," she added.

“For example, we are being asked to take their word that the company has adequate insurance. What does that even mean in this context? The Deepwater Horizon disaster took place while BP was trying to cap the exploratory well and it cost $65bn to clean up.

"We find it highly unlikely that BPC has insurance coverage to that level, and if they do, why won’t they simply come out and provide proof of coverage?”