By J L Samboma
The discovery of oil off the coastal waters of Guyana occasioned widespread speculation the small South American nation was in for a boom that could fund development efforts. However, that optimism may need to be tempered if details of the deal between the Georgetown government and the oil giants are any indication of things to come.
That was the message from Amanda Latimer, a campaigner against a 2016 energy deal between the government and a multinational consortium headed by ExxonMobil. The Canadian campaigner, a lecturer in political economy at Britain’s Kingston University, was speaking at the Pan Afrikan Society Community Forum (PASCF) in Brixton, south London.
This former British colony is located on the north-eastern coast of South America. It is bordered on the west by Venezuela, and on the east and south by Suriname and Brazil respectively. It is also known as the “Land of Six Peoples”, a tribute to its diverse mix of peoples and cultures, including Amerindian, African, Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, and people of mixed heritage. It is also one of the poorest countries in the region, with an average per capita income of $4,000.
That is why the screaming headlines about a fast-approaching “oil boom” are enough to make the average Guyanese bristle with anticipation. Take your pick: “Exxon Puts Guyana On The Map”, “Is Guyana Prepared For An Oil Boom?”, “Oil discoveries likely to bring rapid changes to Guyana” and, last but not least, “Growing Guyana: The Boom of Offshore Energy”.
Full scale commercial production is set to begin next year in the Liza oil field, the first of twelve such sites that have been discovered and the first to go into development. It is located in a petroleum-rich, 6.6 acre offshore block known as the Stabroek oil fields. Liza is expected to yield an average 120,000 barrels per day (bpd) by 2020. By 2025, when sources say five sites are expected to be online, it is estimated that total production will peak at 750,000 bpd.
By the time production commences, it would be two decades after Guyana signed an exploration agreement with ExxonMobil, and five years since the initial discovery of oil in 2015. Exxon’s junior partners in the production consortium are the US-based Hess Corporation and Nexen Petroleum, a subsidiary of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation.
Super-profits for oil giants, peanuts for the people
Experts say there may be up to four billion barrels of recoverable oil under Stabroek, with revenues from the combined oil and gas deposits put as high as $200 billion. Compared to the vast amounts major oil producers like Saudi Arabia or Russia take in oil revenues, those figures may sound modest, but they represent a tidy windfall for a poor country with a population of fewer than one million.
The question on the lips of many is whether Guyana will actually cash in on this predicted bonanza. For imperialist organs such as the New York Times, it will – but only if Guyanese leave behind their “long history of corruption, ethnic rivalry, weak institutions and a lack of innovation”. This is an embellished reference to cases of corruption and racial tension in this multi-ethnic nation.
However, according to many critics, the primary reason Guyanese will lose out on the deal is that its proceeds will be siphoned off by Exxon and its partners, via problematic financial transactions and profit write-offs that the multinational corporations have negotiated with the neocolonial government in Georgetown.
As Andy Higgginbottom, also a politics lecturer from Kingston University, said in his contribution, “The thing is that it’s perfectly legal – it’s part of the contract the government signed with Exxon, and is a typical example of a production sharing agreement”.
Latimer added: “The development of the Stabroek oil field will see dramatic super-profits go mostly to corporations, while the Guyanese people are the bearers of the actual risk”.
A shameless, exploitative agreement
Exxon say they laid out an initial $500 million, plus a further $4.4 billion to develop the Liza oilfield. But many critics charge that these high costs are indefensible, given that oil prices are currently at historically depressed levels. They submit that the Exxon-led consortium are piling up unnecessary costs which will then be inflated through the devices of “creative accounting”, and then “written-off” against revenues that should rightly go to the Guyanese people.
This is what Latimer said in relation to that issue: “The development takes place at a moment of low oil prices and the bill for the exploration and developmental costs are being loaded on the Guyanese state and people”.
“This ExxonMobil agreement with Guyana shamelessly breaks new ground”, added Brother Cecil Gutzmore of the PASCF, who chaired the event.
While the oil giant has promised shareholder returns of 20%, it will retain 75% of the value of crude oil produced and sold each month. The remaining 25% will be shared equally between the consortium and the government. Exxon and partners will also enjoy lavish tax exemptions, including zero customs duty and VAT on raw materials, as well as unrestricted repatriation of capital, profits and dividends.
The cherry atop this very tasty neocolonial pie is that Guyana will only receive royalty payments of 2%. This paltry figure compares very unfavourably with, for example, neighboring Suriname, which receives 7%, and other neocolonial oil producers such as Angola, or Nigeria.
Dr Higginbottom echoed Latimer’s positions on the subject during his contribution to the well-attended event, adding that anyone in the audience who cared about the welfare of the Guyanese people should join the campaign to force a rethink of “this exploitative oil agreement”.
One eloquent index that the deal is a disastrous one for Guyanese is the fact that even the IMF urged the Georgetown government to take a tougher line. “Existing production-sharing agreements appear to enjoy royalty rates well below what is observed internationally”, the World Bank’s partner-in-crime said in a statement. You know this deal must stink to high heaven when even the premier neocolonial agency charged with the duty of siphoning-off wealth from the poor to the rich countries can raise such an objection.
As was reported in international media at the time, it was the IMF which forced the government in 2017 to reveal details of the deal, after they had refused to publish them, hiding behind the fig leaf of “national security concerns”. This must be part of what the New York Times was alluding to, when it mentioned the country’s “long history of corruption”. But, since this particular instance of corruption involved local officials colluding with the oil giants to hide the murky details of neocolonial exploitation from the masses, the bourgeois, imperialist organ saw no percentage in pursuing that story in an honest manner, for the simple reason that it was not in their objective material interests to do so.
Walter Rodney’s legacy invoked
We will note in passing that this bolt of uncharacteristic candour from the IMF is not an instance of the neocolonial appendage going rogue. Forbid the thought! It was your traditional conjuror’s trick and an opportunistic public relations exercise rolled into one. It took nothing away from their core function and exploitative raison d’etre. This is easily gleaned from the fact that the body I call the “Imperialist Monetary Fund” has not deemed it necessary to condemn the revenue-sharing aspect of the deal, under which Exxon will expropriate close to 90% of the value of crude oil produced.
I have based that conclusion on a hypothetical from Dr Higginbottom’s research. According to his projections, if the partners were to adhere strictly to the letter of the deal, Exon will “take home” $3,460 million of the first $4 billion of the value of oil produced, leaving just $540 million for the Guyanese.
The deal also lacks proper environmental safeguards, critics have cautioned, fearing that we could witness disasters to rival, or even overshadow, the Omai mining disaster. The Omai incident took places in 1995 under the neoliberal government of Cheddi Jagan, when gold mining operations spilled thousands of litres of cyanide into the Essequibo and Omai rivers.
Latimer said: “Guyana has been close to this before, and everyday Guyanese working people in the diaspora and at home should rightfully be wary of yet another slick promise of 'development' on the basis of the country’s natural wealth”.
The campaigner concluded with the message that economic salvation for the country will not arrive through Brazilian capital, Chinese state-owned oil companies or European or American multinational corporations: “We should look to the arguments of Walter Rodney regarding capitalist development in the neocolonial context, and the prospects for an alternative that arises in revolutionary anti-imperialism and solidarity”.
The presentation was well-received by the lively audience. Afterwards there was a question and answer (and contributions) session. The title of the presentation was “Hit-and-Run Capitalism in Guyana’s New Offshore Oil Sector: developmental fatigue in the imperialist system”. It was chaired by Brother Cecil Gutzmore of the PASCF.