Exploring for oil Editorial
Stabroek News
February 11, 2002

Last month, while reviewing the mining sector for 2001, Prime Minister Sam Hinds expressed his frustration at Guyana's inability to exploit potential oil resources offshore because of the actions of Suriname and Venezuela.

"We feel quite stymied by the continuing situation with the CGX incident on one side (Suriname) and the expressions from Venezuela having essentially put a freeze on exploration activities offshore", said the PM.

It was quite an admission. The objectionable and unneighbourly actions of fellow CARICOM state, Suriname, and Venezuela have effectively put paid to Guyana's offshore oil exploration ambitions. Suriname through its gunboat demarche on the CGX rig effectively scuttled drilling at the Eagle site in Guyana's eastern waters, believed to be the most promising of the wells earmarked by the Canadian explorer CGX. The compromise well that was eventually sunk at Horseshoe West during the standoff with Suriname wasn't a hot prospect and came up dry. In about four months, it will be two years since Paramaribo's gunboats chased away the CGX rig from Guyana's waters. While his recent visit to Suriname went swimmingly, President Jagdeo has returned with only a commitment for the two sides to explore possible best practices for joint exploration at the level of the border commissions. This is all very vague. Is it possible that joint exploration would mean joint control over the Eagle site? That would be unacceptable. Further, President Venetiaan's caveat that his Parliament would also have to bless any agreement is a clear signal that the road to oil exploration is a luxuriantly pot-holed one with numerous forks. As an aside, one can't help but get the feeling that Suriname is sitting pretty. It used force to eject the rig and it has now been gifted with a crowbar to press its wider border claims.

On the western front, it's anything but quiet. Venezuela has succeeded in scaring off at least two potential oil explorers from Guyana's waters offshore the Essequibo by its militaristic bullying. Caracas, with President Chavez's blessings, has directly and aggressively tracked down potential investors in Essequibo and warned them off.

So what is sacrosanct in Guyana's offshore zone for oil explorers? Is it only the Atlantic zone parallel to Demerara and some of Berbice? What a sorry state of affairs. The question is what will the government do about this stranglehold that our neighbours have us in?

Prior to the Wishbone well in 2000, it had been a decade since a well had been sunk in the continuing campaign to find oil. Both the French company Total in the Atlantic and Hunt Oil of the US in the Takutu Basin came up dry in their quests. The competition for oil exploration dollars recently has been fierce and new finds off western Africa, Brazil and in traditionally lucrative areas means it's an explorers market. Trinidad's huge LNG finds is a case in point. Oil explorers will not give a second thought to problematic search zones like Guyana's if they risk two unfriendly navies breathing down their rigs or survey ships at every twist or turn.

The gross irony of the situation is that both Venezuela and Suriname have thriving oil industries but they have sought to deny this right to Guyana.

The government has to mount what basketballers know as a full-court press to reverse or at least redress the vice-like grip on oil exploration. At every meeting that Guyana engages Venezuela and Suriname this suffocation of the country's right to explore for and exploit its natural resources must be at the forefront and not converted into an also-ran issue tacked on limply to the very bottom of a communique. Recent meetings in Guyana at which Venezuela and Surinamese officials have been present have seen a soft-pedalling on the critical issue of the right to attract investment to Essequibo and to explore for oil. As has been said before in these columns fraternal relations with our neighbours is a myth in the face of these cut-throat tactics.

Secondly, Guyana has to argue its case internationally at every available forum and particularly at the UN. The upcoming meeting of Commonwealth Heads in Australia is one such opportunity. Every available lever has to be activated to apply pressure on Caracas and Paramaribo to resile from their aggressive stance. The aid of influential countries such as the US and UK should be enlisted in this mission.

Thirdly, while Guyana resists pressures in its eastern and western maritime zones, it should craft a carefully thought out strategy for attracting investors to its "safe" offshore zone and its terra firma possibilities. With scarce exploration dollars and the unattractive image that Guyana has notched up in the oil exploration business, this is harder than it sounds. But if the government is serious about lowering our heavy oil import bill and diversifying our energy supplies it must not be dissuaded from this course. This is something that the revamped Go-Invest should be entrusted with. It is another one of those cases where we should put together a portfolio of opportunities and go out and canvas for oil explorers. Waiting until our neighbours back off from their unfriendly postures or have their grievances ultimately settled is a non-starter. The government should expound some more on its oil exploration policy and Go-Invest should be put to work on it.