Ferreira dodges Oban issueEnvironment minister refuses to address concerns about project
Environment Minister Romauld Ferreira yesterday dodged questions on the controversial Oban Energies project and whether he has any concerns about the deal as an advocate for the environment.
Ferreira insisted this is a matter for the Office of the Prime Minister. Following the morning sitting of the House of Assembly, The Nassau Guardian asked Ferreira why he has been silent on the Oban debacle, considering he is known for his environmental activism.
“The Office of the Prime Minister is charged with heads of agreement,” he said.
“The BEST Commission is also under the Office of the Prime Minister and they are charged with reviewing EIAs (environmental impact assessments) and EMPs (environmental management plans).
“So, therefore, it would be out of turn for me to speak on those issues. They don’t fall within the purview of my ministry.”
On February 19, the government signed a heads of agreement with Oban for a $5.5 billion oil refinery and storage facility in Grand Bahama.
However, it was later revealed that, that signing was “ceremonial” and Oban President Satpal Dhunna had already signed the official heads of agreement.
Environmentalists and advocacy groups have expressed serious concerns that the deal was signed without an EIA and the agreement locks the government into the project no matter what the EIA finds.
The heads of agreement states, “The parties agree that the government shall not have the right to terminate these heads of agreement based upon any EIA report, but instead shall work with the developer to mitigate any concerns.”
When he contributed to the mid-year budget debate in the House of Assembly last week, Ferreira did not speak to the issue.
The Nassau Guardian asked if he was comfortable with the EIA clause and the fact that there is not yet an EIA.
“There is nothing unusual about that,” he said, referring to the lack of an EIA at the signing. You don’t really have a project until you actually sign the heads of agreement. So [not] having an EIA ahead of a heads of agreement, there is nothing unusual about that.
“Do you have any research to date to show that, that is unusual? Most of the EIAs happen after the heads of agreement.”
According to the Planning and Subdivision Act, section 14, “An environmental impact statement is required to be submitted to the Department [of Physical Planning] as part of any proposed type of development which is likely to give rise to significant effects on the environment by virtue of its nature, size or location; of national importance; proposed for sensitive lands or for lands with natural importance; significant in terms of size or complexity; of a nature that may have potentially adverse environmental effects; or a development of regional impact.”
The act notes that the Town Planning Committee “shall consider the findings of an environmental impact statement and the comments received from referral agencies with respect to an environmental impact statement in its deliberation of an application for preliminary support of application or approval”.
The Bahamas Investment Authority’s guidelines also require investors seeking approval to “indicate any possible harmful environmental effects and list the mitigating measures that would be employed to deal with them”.
The Nassau Guardian asked Ferreira again, whether he had any concerns that “the government shall not have the right to terminate these heads of agreement based upon any EIA report”.
“EIAs don’t make final determinations,” he said. “But again, the prime minister will speak to this on Wednesday in his budget contribution and I will explore it further with you.”
Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis has promised to address the matter when he speaks in the House of Assembly.
Asked again whether he had concerns about the EIA lock-in clause, Ferreira said, “That is not what it says. If you read the heads of agreement, it says that there is a commitment to try and resolve the impacts. But all EIAs do that. That is the purpose of an EIA. An EIA is a planning tool. Its purpose is to determine the impacts and quantify them.”
As for whether he was comfortable with the way the project was rolled out in the absence of a EIA and locking the government and the Bahamian people in to the agreement, the minister said, “The Ministry of the Environment stands ready to assist in the process.
“I tried to explain to you and I did already about typical processes. You don’t have to take my word for it.
“You can go online and check and you will see that an EIA is a planning tool and it normally happens after a heads of agreement. There is nothing unusual about that.”
During her speech at a U.S. Embassy reception last week, during which time she received the ‘Woman of Courage Award’, environmentalist Sam Duncombe expressed concern over the government’s decision to sign the heads of agreement prior to an EIA being completed.
“Instead of aggressively pursuing renewable energies promised by the prime minister, the government approved the Oban oil refinery in Grand Bahama,” said Duncombe, co-founder of the environmental group, ReEarth.
“This deal was signed without consultation, with egregious concessions and a change in our laws to suit the developer.”
In a statement yesterday, the Bahamas National Trust (BNT) said it “cannot envisage any scenario where BNT could support this project”.
The minister noted that he had not yet seen the BNT’s statement and as such declined to answer questions about the group’s concerns.
Asked about why the government moved ahead with the Oban heads of agreement without consultation, the minister said, “I am not responsible for evaluating the EIAs. That is the purview of the OPM. “
He added, when pressed, “I remember seeing in the newspaper that the consultation process had begun.