Corruption, Pollution and Economic Crisis: The Cautionary Tale of T&T's Oil Industry
Oil Reserves Don't Benefit the People of Trinidad and Tobago
Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), once proud, hopeful, and wealthy, is today left with nothing but a beleaguered Treasury and toxic crude poisoning our waters and food system.
From Sir Walter Raleigh stumbling upon the Pitch Lake in La Brea in 1595, to businessmen Randolph Rust and John Lee Lum successfully establishing the first commercial oil well in T&T in 1902, we have built a legacy that has transformed the once richest biodiverse waters in the Americas to a marine desert filled with toxic waste. The curse of coveted oil wealth has encouraged corruption, squandermania and mismanagement resulting in trade imbalances, weakened institutions, and a legacy of undervalued royalties shrouded in contract secrecy.
We are Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS), a 25-year-old environmental watch-dog NGO, committed to monitoring the activities of the extractive sector. We write to warn Guyana as it is set to take over from T&T as the new “hydrocarbon capital” in the Caribbean. This is our cautionary tale of the treachery of ‘Big Oil’ and national leaders, of impending environmental catastrophe, of hosting extractors lacking conscience.
As we confront diminishing reserves, our vast wealth is plundered, and our legacy tainted irreparably. The extractors profited exponentially from trillions of dollars’ worth of our minerals, some businesspeople are well off, but we are left with over 20 percent of our nationals below the poverty line, a polluted environment beyond repair, escalating numbers of cancer patients, and institutionalized corruption as a lucrative way of life. Our rural communities, which hosted ‘Big Oil’ are deprived of their stake in national wealth. The few dollars earned in royalties have gone to urban centres, while host communities suffer the consequences of environmental degradation, neglect, poverty, and lost livelihoods.
Like Guyana, T&T is a member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). Despite the illusion of being “civil society led”, NGOs have been silenced, outvoted, and overruled by the combined power of the State and ‘Big Oil,’ propagating a façade through its annual reports that “all’s well in T&T.” The reality is, an EITI Bill intended to remove our “State-sanctioned secrecy” and ensure mandatory compliance of all oil and gas companies to the EITI standard, is collecting dust somewhere in our Parliament’s bookshelves. Meanwhile, we are blind, broken, and still unable to pierce Big Oil’s carefully constructed veil of secrecy.
Our Auditor General has indicated in successive reports that the accuracy of royalty revenues cannot be confirmed since there is no independent verification of volumes of oil and gas extracted. The guarded secret of ‘value for volume’ extracted is based on an honour system that depends on the integrity of the extractor. Sections 34 of the Petroleum Act and 34 of the Freedom of Information Act have the collective function of exempting “oil and gas contracts” from public scrutiny. Why is this important? Simply put, without knowing the terms and conditions of a contract, there is no way of knowing whether T&T is receiving fair/comparative ‘value for volume’ of hydrocarbon extracted. Tragically, our politicians have developed the perfect formula to defraud our Treasury and pauperize our vulnerable.
Added to the plague of revenue leakages, T&T has been battling the menace of ‘mysterious’ oil spills, with 498 reported onshore and offshore between 2018 and May 2021. No offender has been fined, penalized, or forced to rehabilitate the affected areas.
Environmental oversight started in T&T in 2000 when the Environmental Management Act (EM Act) was enacted. Thereafter hydrocarbon extractors that were established prior to 2001, were not subjected to any environmental safeguards. Even with laws and an Environmental Management Agency (EMA) tasked with protecting nature and our economy from the environmental excesses of any sector, citizens have had to toil consistently to protect the basic fabric of our existence.
In 2013, after long battles, a National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCP) was established to mitigate the impact of all oil spills, increasing collaboration among partner agencies, and setting specific standards for equipment stockpile and time frames for emergency response. Unfortunately, the NOSCP has no legislative authority so Big Oil can respond anyway, anyhow, anytime.
In T&T there are nine laws and four policies meant to ensure land and marine areas are protected against oil pollution. There is no regulation mandating an independent verification of the volume spilt, cause, chemical nature, clean-up measures used, cost of clean-up, and the human and environmental risks associated with the spilt hydrocarbon. The Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries (MEEI), runs an “honour system”, allowing extractors to self-report on the volume spilt. Oil and gas companies seldom report or make public oil spill events. If a fisherman, resident, or NGO does not publicize an oil spill, it is not reported! What model will Guyana adopt?
For decades, fisherfolk across T&T have been in a longstanding battle with extractors. Chief amongst the fishers’ grievances is the dishonesty and unwillingness of representatives of ‘Big Oil’ who underreport volumes of oil spilt, have not implemented emergency response mechanisms, have not rehabilitated our marine ecosystem, and have not compensated us for the destruction of the natural capital inventory of our fishery. In 2018, an abandoned wellhead blew in our Gulf of Paria. After 18 days of constant spewing, the well was finally capped. Our Authorities could not locate the well “file”. Fisherfolk could not work and sustained hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. No compensation was ever paid. Big Oil carried on with business as usual despite ruining the livelihoods of thousands of fishers and their families.
Many developing countries are saddled with the expenditure of maintaining abandoned wells long after the wealth has been extracted. Will Guyana’s contracts hold Big Oil accountable for safely decommissioning their wells at abandonment?
Oil, although valuable in a fossil-fueled world, is toxic and carcinogenic. Every drop has an everlasting impact on our marine environment. It bioaccumulates and bio-magnifies higher up the food chain.
Since the 1980’s, scientists have concluded that our Gulf of Paria is contaminated with hydrocarbons and heavy metals. In 2016, FFOS commissioned the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) to test Persistent Organic Pollutants in the fish in La Brea. The study concluded that oil poses “a significant threat to human health.” In 2019, Caribbean scientists Balgobin and Ramroop investigated the association between human cancer risk and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon contamination in fish from the Gulf. The study calculated an annual cancer risk of 5.89 per 10,000 persons. This value is almost 6 times higher than the international standard for high cancer risk (which is 1 in every 10,000 people). It’s safe to say that T&T is the cancer capital of the Caribbean. Will Guyana be next?
Regretfully, the NOSCP permits the usage of COREXIT 9500 dispersant as one oil spill ‘cleanup’ measure, despite this chemical amplifying the toxicity of hydrocarbons over 50 times and even though it is banned in several countries. We face double jeopardy from the spills and the clean-up!
Seismic surveys that companies conduct when exploring for oil have been a major assault on our marine life and fishing industry. Seismic surveys use sound waves to investigate beneath the ocean floor. Most marine life rely on sound to navigate and migrate during their mating cycles. Small simple marine animals are delicate creatures comprised of fluids in a thin membrane, like thin plastic bags filled with water. They can burst on exposure to sound vibration. A 2017 study done by McCauley et. al. showed that within a 1.2-kilometre seismic blast range, 40-60 percent of zooplankton are decimated. Zooplankton are the foundation of the marine food chain. Their death inevitably leads to reduced catch rates and marine ecosystem imbalance.
We have observed and complained that years after a seismic survey, fishing grounds are dead. Despite decades of observations of damage to the fishing industry and loss of livelihoods, our authorities still have not done any studies on the impacts of seismic sound on benthic organisms living on the seabed, and very few scientific studies have been done on the impact of seismic surveys on our fishery and marine life. Since the passage of the EM Act, 115 Certificates of Environmental Clearances (CEC) have been obtained for oil and gas activities, of which 82 applications were submitted to conduct seismic activities. Of these 82 CEC applications, only 3 were required to conduct an EIA. Without a transparent, inclusive, and consultative scientific approach to control when, where, how, and if seismic surveys will be approved, it is not possible to mitigate their impact. What will Guyana do? Will it ignore the value of its marine biological resources and exempt Big Oil from EIAs too?
As T&T moves into a post-oil era, we lament the shortcomings of our failed undiversified economy. We were blessed with more wealth than any small island would ever need, and we have little to show for it. Guyana can choose to learn from our failings.
Who will protect your nation’s natural resources, viability of your economy, fence-line communities exposed to the chemicals of this industry, those at risk of losing their livelihoods, and public health? These are the lessons we learned: Citizens must hold leaders accountable to ensure that Big Oil does not use, abuse, belittle and pollute your country. You must never accept it when leaders trust extractors to self-monitor their production, equipment, systems, and disposal methods. Beware of leaders and regulatory institutions that expedite environmental permits and allow company violations with impunity. Fight for the independence of your regulatory institutions from political bosses. Arm yourself with credible information. Fight for the relevant legislation and fight in the courts when agents of the law ignore that very law. Demand that your elected representatives protect your Treasury. Work to unify your segregated society. Empower and support communities on the front lines of pollution. Finally, support your NGOs who must prepare to defend your national patrimony in and out of Court against the lack of conscience within your own land, not just among extractors. You must heed our warning as those who have been traumatized by a century of fossil fuel extraction. Stand guard, otherwise you too will end up pauperised and polluted.
This article originally appeared in Stabroek News.
Alexander Ramdass (Legal Officer), Lisa Premchand (Programme Director) and Gary Aboud (Corporate Secretary) For Fishermen and Friends of the Sea