Friday, May 11, 2012

Setting the record straight on oil exploration in The Bahamas

Setting the record straight on oil exploration

By Dr. Paul Crevello

Politicizing is common in election years, especially when the initiator is feeling pressure to undermine his opponent.  It is happening in the U.S. presidential race, and it is certainly evident in Bahamian politics.  In this case, in reference to Bahamas Petroleum, what is being stated in the press needs attention.

As former CEO of Bahamas Petroleum, I was present when our licenses were submitted and approved and wish to clarify misconceptions.  I felt it was necessary to step forward and comment on the process BPC went through when applying for the exploration licenses, which was an arduous process with multiple stages of dialogue between the responsible agencies of the government, from the respective ministries, the Cabinet, the attorney general and eventually approval by the governor general.  The process took nearly two years and in the end was awarded under the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) term in 2007.  But, I wish to point out that the licenses were reviewed immediately upon the Free National Movement (FNM) entering office in May of 2007, and the FNM administration confirmed that the licenses were awarded following established government guidelines set in place by the Petroleum Act.  Therefore, the license application and approval process followed established government procedures, which was a multi-stage approval process that in the end both major political parties reviewed and approved.

What is important is the potential benefit to the country if oil is present and producible, and nothing more leaving politics aside.  There is oil in The Bahamas, but we do not know how much and if there is sufficient pool to be developed.  If so, then the people will be the ones who benefit over the long-term if the process continues to follow legal stipulations of the government and adhere to international safety standards.


Both parties have awarded exploration licences in the past.  In 1983, the law firm of Christie and Ingraham was engaged by Tenneco for approval of drilling a well (drilled in 1986) in the southwest Bahamas.  In October 1999, the FNM awarded exploration licenses to a private “minnow” oil company, Liberty Oil concession, whose owner is a real estate developer, and in 2003, the PLP awarded exploration licenses to the U.S. major oil company Kerr McGee.  The PLP awarded licenses to BPC in 2007 and it became a publically traded company on the London AIM exchange in 2008.  Yes, we engaged Davis and Co. to represent the company and file our license applications.  But they were the only law firm qualified in the oil and gas sector and had experience with Kerr McGee.  So they were and still are the top firm in this field.

It took me several years to convince the Christie regime that there is a probability that commercial pools of oil may be discovered in The Bahamas.  Major oil companies have spent over a hundred million dollars in seismic exploration and drilling five wells in The Bahamas since 1948, all without mishap.  I had commissioned about US$50 million of technical studies, which were recently reported to have a one in two chance of finding four billion barrels of oil.  However, finding it is not the same as being able to get it out of the ground.  It is a complex process and could result in a multi-billion-dollar investment and still many years away from when the first well is drilled.

When the FNM took office in May 2007, I had to gain the confidence of the new administration that The Bahamas may become another Middle East – i.e., net oil producer and exporter.  It took me a couple of years and numerous presentations to convince the new government of this potential, and then it was at that time I introduced the government to the partnership I signed with Statoil of Norway, including audience with Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham.

During the FNM regime, I provided consultation to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as to the location of the potential oil fields of the southern Bahamas waters, so these areas would be preserved for The Bahamas during negotiations with Cuba on the position of the international border.  I did not want this to be lost in negotiations.

I also suggested that the government initiate dialogue with the respective agencies of Norway, in order to learn how a fishing and lumber-dominated economy went to being one of the wealthiest sovereign funds in the world.  The ministry began dialogue with the government of Norway through political channels on drilling policy and establishment of a sovereign fund.  The FNM government was evaluating the necessary steps required to moving to an oil-producing nation and net exporter if oil was discovered.

Then, BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico occurred in April 2010, and rightfully, the government chose to proceed with caution in evaluating the full impact of drilling in The Bahamas, establishing the safeguards to prevent a similar situation from happening in The Bahamas.  The FNM still discussed procedures with the Norway counterparts to strengthen policies for The Bahamas.

Regarding the licenses, Alan Burns, the founder of BPC, first applied for exploration licences in August 2005, following the protocol of the Bahamian Petroleum Act, which was based on UK North Sea regulations.  At the time Burns applied for the exploration licences, the last major entry into The Bahamas exploration was Kerr McGee in 2003, exiting in 2006.

BPCs license applications went through three approval processes; firstly with Minister Leslie Miller of the Ministry of Energy in early 2006.  Then following revisions, provisional approval was granted in late 2006 by the Permanent Secretary Camille Johnson, with final approval signed into effect in early 2007 by Dr. Marcus Bethel, minister of energy and the environment.

The applications then went to Governor General Arthur D. Hanna, whose duty it was to assess the merits and benefits to the country of assigning government lands for exploitation.  As would be expected of a request of such importance, the governor general invested considerable time in reviewing the agreements.  Hanna and the PLP administration (Cabinet and PM Christie) insisted that environmental guidelines and protocol be inserted into the licenses to protect the environment, even though the protocol was not required by the Petroleum Act.  I complied with the insertion because, as an environmentalist, my belief was that we as a company explore with the intention of preserving the environment for future generations.

Upon acceptance of the company’s revisions, the licenses were approved by Hanna, whose authority it was to grant government titles and licensing of Commonwealth lands.  The licenses were signed into effect in April 2007.  This process was not new to the governor general, as he had approved similar applications for Liberty Oil and Kerr McGee.

I ran about eight focus groups with Joan Albury of The Counsellors Ltd. throughout the major cities in The Bahamas, with a general cross section of the population participating.  The majority were in favor of progressing oil exploration after learning about the company and the safeguards it would follow, the potential for discovery of petroleum and the potential benefits to the people and the government.  So in essence, it was received very favorably and these fora were done after the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill in, I believe, either late 2010 or early 2011.

The landscape

The U.S. government has determined that the BP Macondo spill was by human error.  The oil zones (reservoirs, oil occurs in tiny spaces within rock layers much like water in an aquifer) in the Gulf of Mexico are under very high pressure because of geologic conditions related to burial of soft sand under the Mississippi delta.  In contrast, the reservoirs drilled to date in The Bahamas, south Florida and Cuba are normal unpressured layers because of the hard limestones.  Low pressure in these limestone reservoirs has been established from hundreds of wells drilled in the region.

The last well to be drilled in The Bahamas was in 1986 by Tenneco in the southernmost part of Great Bahama Bank, which was drilled in the shallow part of the bank, closer to Cuba than to Andros island.  Prior to that, four other wells were drilled between 1948 to 1972 in The Bahamas, and none of the wells suffered any mishap: two onshore wells, one on Andros and another on Long Island; and two “offshore” wells drilled in pristine aqua waters of the shallow bank, one just north of Bimini visible from the Great Isaac lighthouse, and another well was drilled in the center of Cay Sal Bank.

And all wells had positive shows of oil and or gas.  The areas were left pristine as before drilling and there was no reported impact on the environment.  A U.S. government report (USGS by Dr. Eugene Shinn) reported on the numerous wells drilled in the Florida Keys and that there was no impact on coral reef environments.

Drilling has been conducted safely and successfully in The Bahamas in the past.  Wells will be drilled on the Cuban side of the boarder, within 10 kilometers or closer to the international boundary with The Bahamas in the coming year.  Oil spill models that I commissioned and recently reported by the company show that if a spill would occur, which would not be a high pressure Macondo-type blowout, then the probability of the spill making landfall on Bahamian beaches is less than a tenth of a percent, nearly zero.

Let government regulations, public fora and the best interest of The Bahamas decide on the potential of the petroleum investment, not politics, rhetoric and ivory tower special interest groups.  I believe once the election is past, the Government of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas owes it to its people to test the potential for oil pools in the south, adjacent to the boundary with Cuba.  Cuba will be testing its side of the border, shouldn’t The Bahamas at least hope that “it could be so lucky”?

• Dr. Paul Crevello is CEO of Discovery Petroleum.  He is also the former CEO of the Bahamas Petroleum Company.

May 11, 2012