The sordid saga of the Oban Energies oil refinery deal has gotten even messier with the revelation that the file the Bahamas Environment Science and Technology (BEST) Commission has on the project has gone missing.
This revelation comes at a time when the government appears to be laying the groundwork for a complete exit from its arrangement with the company, which plans to construct an oil refinery and storage facility in the environmentally sensitive East Grand Bahama.
We cannot remember another time when the government’s signing of a deal with an investor has been clouded by such controversy and shrouded in such darkness.
The government’s credibility in the handling of this matter has been lost entirely, notwithstanding its efforts to get Oban off the front pages.
But this sad story appears far from over. It is unseemly on multiple levels.
As Pineridge MP Frederick McAlpine recently observed, “If it starts bad, it will end bad.”
The Oban matter has been a nightmare for the government and the country from the start. We do not see this ending well.
From week to week over the past two months, the revelations relating to the planned project have been stunning, exposing government incompetence, eroding trust in the Minnis administration and fuelling suspicion.
Neither the government nor its advisory agency, BEST, revealed anything about the missing file.
We found out during a casual conversation with someone on Monday night and confirmed with the police commissioner that a formal complaint was made and police were investigating.
We do not know what the missing BEST file contained, when the file went missing or why anyone would have wanted it to disappear.
All we know from police is that BEST Director Philip Weech filed the complaint about that missing file and that it was an actual physical file, according to Assistant Commissioner of Police Paul Rolle.
He told us he interviewed people from the agency on Monday and expected to interview more people as a part of the probe yesterday.
But he declined to reveal any further details. Rolle said the complaint was filed over a week ago.
It is absolutely incredible that a file for a $5.5 billion project just mysteriously vanished from the agency charged with examining environmental impact assessments (EIA) and environmental management plans (EMP) and advising the government on such matters.
Given the serious nature of this issue and the national interest in the Oban deal, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, the minister responsible for BEST, should advise Parliament on whether there are any backup electronic files and the impact the missing file is having on the efforts of BEST to complete its work in respect to this matter.
By extension, the public should be advised what impact this will have on the project and the proposed timelines.
What sorts of controls or safeguards does BEST have to protect the integrity of its work?
How could a whole file just vanish? This is a serious issue. If there is no duplicate file, this is an even more serious issue.
In addition to the government’s credibility being undermined due to the numerous missteps and screw-ups along the way, the credibility of BEST itself has been called into question.
After the Oban deal was signed in February, many questioned why the prime minister moved BEST into his direct portfolio last year.
After a document circulated via social media last November showing that he moved BEST from the portfolio of Environment Minister Romauld Ferreira to his portfolio, Minnis called it “fake news”.
After we got a copy of the gazetted notice, Anthony Newbold, the prime minister’s press secretary, explained, “The prime minister decided to take responsibility for BEST so that, as an agency under the Office of the Prime Minister, it could be a part of the review process before matters went to the National Economic Council.”
That explanation made no sense, but it was the prime minister’s prerogative to make the change.
Three months after our confirmation that BEST was moved to the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), the role of BEST came up for discussion when the Oban agreement was signed in the absence of an EIA.
The public has been given conflicting information regarding the status of the EIA for Oban and what BEST has and has not done as yet.
Weech remained silent as controversy engulfed the deal and questions mounted about the status of the environmental impact assessment.
After Oban President Satpal Dhunna claimed that BEST informed Oban that it needed signed heads of agreement before it could have a meeting with BEST regarding its EIA, Weech said he would speak to that claim, but never did.
At a town meeting on March 22, Dhunna claimed that the company has already invested $10 million in the project, which he said has already had a direct benefit to the people of Grand Bahama.
According to Dhunna, approximately $10 million has been invested in research, which included finding the appropriate site that offers the most environmentally friendly advantage, doing preliminary engineering, underground work, market research as well as meeting government requirements.
Dhunna’s comments were carried in our sister paper, The Freeport News.
At the “ceremonial” signing with the government on February 19, Peter Krieger, Oban’s non-executive chairman with a checkered past, also claimed that Oban had already done a great deal of groundwork.
He told reporters that an EIA would be completed in 45 days.
Clearly, Krieger thought he was dealing with a bunch of idiots in the Bahamian press corps who would not follow up to see if anything he was saying actually made sense.
When we did follow up, we came into possession of evidence showing that, more than two weeks later, BEST was only preparing to start discussions on the initial terms of reference for the EIA.
It had not yet visited the project site, as revealed in a March 7 letter Weech wrote to Dr. Keith Tinker, director of the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corporation, inviting him to Grand Bahama for the visit.
Amid the public furor, Minnis addressed the Oban matter in the House of Assembly last month, declaring: “The Grand Bahama project must go hand-in-hand with the protection of our environment and the conservation of our natural resources.”
BEST plays a key role in ensuring that these projects take place in an environmentally sustainable way.
If there is no confidence in the work of BEST, there can be no confidence in any development for which BEST ought to be providing advice to the government.
‘So long, bye bye’
This is a curious case indeed.
Also curious has been the tone recently adopted by the government through two senior government ministers.
When the prime minister spoke in Parliament on the Oban matter on March 20 during the wrap-up of the mid-year budget debate, he made no indication of how we could get out of this bad deal, although he later claimed he was “very thorough” in speaking to the issue.
More than one person close to the prime minister has told us the government wishes to get out of the deal.
We believe the government recognizes that calling off the deal would send a bad signal to other investors and prospective investors. It would also have huge legal implications for The Bahamas in addition to reputational damage.
As such, it seems there is a shift in tone to pacify Bahamians still concerned about the Oban project.
The agreement states at clause 5.1, “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.”
Addressing a University of The Bahamas forum on Grand Bahama last week, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest, who is the member of Parliament for East Grand Bahama, claimed the government has the right to terminate the agreement if the company fails to address any concerns raised by an EIA.
He said the government would not provide a license for Oban to operate its oil refinery if it is not demonstrated that it will be environmentally sound and sustainable.
Speaking in the Senate on Monday, Attorney General Carl Bethel adopted the same theme.
He said there is no liability for the government if the developer determines that environmental mandates the government considers reasonable would not be commercially viable.
Bethel did not say it, but it seems that the government expects to get out of the agreement without liability if it so frustrates the developer that Oban packs up and leaves.
“If they say it is commercially unreasonable, bye-bye. So long, bye-bye,” said the attorney general, borrowing a theme directed toward the Progressive Liberal Party government in the lead-up to last year’s general election when the FNM declared it was time for the PLP to go.
It’s sad really that this is the most realistic way out of a poorly constructed agreement – to frustrate the developer, who would still need to make the ultimate decision about pulling out.
We agree with Progressive Liberal Party Deputy Leader Chester Cooper that there is a growing perception that the government has lost confidence in Oban.
Cooper rightly observed: “Where was the deputy prime minister’s voice and certainty about the government’s ability to get out of this deal when the government was grilled during the mid-year budget debate in the House of Assembly about their sheer folly and clumsy handling of this important matter?”
He added, “If the Minnis administration plans on ending this badly conceived Oban deal, as would be the right course, it should just say that and do so through the proper legal channels and with much more transparency and due diligence than it lunged headlong into it.
“We reiterate that Oban is a bad deal and the government must act with dispatch in extricating the Bahamian people from it.”
The shifting government tone and the missing BEST file are leaving an even worse taste in the mouths of many Bahamians who have had enough of this unending debacle born out of incompetence, wanton disregard for the interests of the Bahamian people and, we suspect, motives that have yet to come to the surface.