By Steve Mashuda
For the past year, people in communities from The Bahamas to the US Eastern seaboard have been watching with concern as a petroleum company incorporated in the Isle of Man drilled an oil exploration well in the world-famous waters of The Bahamas.
As the company began to drill in December, there was a groundswell of opposition in The Bahamas, with protests and a lawsuit challenging the decision to approve the drilling. Prime Minister Hubert Minnis expressed opposition to offshore drilling, but lamented that the government’s hands were tied at the time by the terms of licenses first issued to the company in 2007.
When that initial well came up dry in February, there was a sigh of relief. Licenses for the driller, called Bahamas Petroleum Company (BPC), were set to expire in June. With an unsuccessful exploration well on the books, many hoped the threat had passed. But in March, Bahamas Petroleum Company (soon to be renamed Challenger Energy) applied to renew those licenses for another three years.
As the Bahamas government considers that request, the island nation now has an opportunity to make a clean break with past decisions and look ahead to a clean energy future. The government is not obligated to renew the drilling leases. Lawyers at the non-profit environmental law firm where I head the oceans program have analyzed the available information and the Bahamian Petroleum Act, and it is clear that the government of The Bahamas has full legal authority and discretion to say “no” to the company’s renewal request. On May 13, we sent a letter to the Bahamas government explaining that analysis and urging it to exercise its discretion to deny the renewal request.
The company has asserted that it has a right to renew these licenses, but there’s no available evidence to support that. The plain terms of the licenses make clear that for this renewal request, the relevant government minister “may, in his discretion, renew this license” for a period of up to three years. Similar language appears in the Petroleum Act and the regulations implementing it. This is not language of obligation. You don’t need to be a lawyer to understand that there’s a world of difference between “shall” and “may”.
The Bahamas government has compelling reasons to deny this request. The company recently announced plans to focus its efforts outside The Bahamas, handing off any future drilling in The Bahamas to an as-yet-identified third party. Ending this threat now would restore The Bahamas’ path to meet its international climate commitments, maintain the country’s remarkable natural heritage and protect the tourism industry.
This is a time of global climate awareness, commitment and action. In the United States, that has spurred a long-overdue assessment and pause on new oil-drilling leases on federal lands and in federal offshore waters, which together account for 25 percent of US carbon emissions. At the same time, scientists, fishermen and coastal communities know the oceans are bearing the brunt of climate change and past exploitation. As the US and its neighbors learned the hard way from British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, damage from offshore drilling does not respect boundaries and borders. Lawmakers in the US from both parties know that offshore drilling threatens our shared waters and have expressed opposition and deep concern about offshore drilling in The Bahamas.
If there are facts, agreements or documents that haven’t been made available to the public that contradict our legal analysis, they should be produced so everyone can evaluate for themselves. Otherwise, like house guests who have overstayed their welcome and are now claiming a right to stay for several more years, Challenger Energy should rethink its claims of a right to drill, understand that it is a guest and realize that a discretionary drilling permit renewal is a privilege, not a right.
Steve Mashuda is the managing attorney for the oceans program at Earthjustice, a national non-profit environmental law organization. Visit www.earthjustice.org or follow on Twitter @Earthjustice.