Aug 14, 2022 News
Kaieteur, Canje 12 well drilling campaigns…
By Davina Bagot
Kaieteur News – A recent ruling by the Environmental Assessment Board (EAB) to uphold a decision made by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) not to require Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for ExxonMobil’s 12-well drilling campaigns, in both the Kaieteur and Canje Blocks offshore Guyana is “illogical and not surprising”.
This is according to Environmentalist, Simone Mangal-Joly who shared her conviction with this newspaper during an interview after the EAB handed down its decision last Thursday.
Merits of the Decision
In providing the decision, Ms. Pradeepa Bholanath, Chair of the EAB, noted that drilling campaigns and passage of supply/support vessels have been executed by the American oil major, ExxonMobil over the past few years and are currently ongoing. She said the impact of these within the Stabroek Block has been examined over the years by the oil company alongside several studies that also targeted the Canje and Kaieteur Blocks. These provide initial baseline data that allow a forecast of expected impacts within each block. Sufficient data existed to conclude that any negative impact of the proposed individual projects would be primarily local and short-term. Therefore, the EAB upheld the EPA’s decision to waive the EIAs.
However, Bholanauth said the collective impact of these projects needed to be examined further. Given the increasing drilling activity on the Stabroek Block and its proximity to the Canje and Kaieteur Blocks, along with the number of wells proposed to be drilled, the EAB ordered that ExxonMobil must conduct an EIA of the cumulative impacts of the activities of its projects and provide an updated baseline assessment.
In reaction to the EAB’s decision, environmentalist Simone Mangal-Joly said that the EAB’s decision made “no sense.” She said, “One needs a cumulative impact assessment as part of an EIA before approving and granting a permit for an activity. What if the cumulative impact assessment finds that this one extra activity when piled onto everything else going on offshore, let’s say for example seismic surveys and drilling of 12 wells in the Kaieteur Block, is too much to bear? What then? The EPA would have already approved well drilling in Kaieteur. This decision is also not justified by the reasoning the EAB provided. If you look at my submission, I specifically argued that cumulative impact assessments were needed and that was exactly why EIAs were required. I also specified the types of data needed for a decision to be reached on the significance of the impacts. None of the baseline studies or any other study that the EAB used to justify its decision contain that information.”
In the written appeals Mangal-Joly had submitted to the EAB back in 2021, she wrote that “…the agency (EPA) lacks the relevant empirical data required to conclude that the proposed drilling activities are not likely to significantly impact the natural environment or Guyana’s offshore fish populations and fisheries sector.” She specified that there was: “no recorded evidence anywhere, in any EIA already completed, or baseline studies conducted offshore, of the locations of coral reefs and fish nurseries relative to existing drill sites and/or proposed exploratory drill sites and deep-sea current and seabed contour information.” She further stated that there was: “no baseline information in any of the baseline studies to which the applications refer on fish and mammal life cycle and migratory patterns, and the extent and full economic and socio-economic value of offshore related fisheries or near shore fisheries affected by offshore oil and gas logistic activities.” There were also “no baseline biological assays of fish, biomarkers of fish population and communities, or any related monitoring and evaluation data for these and other relevant parametres in and around areas where production and exploratory drilling is in progress or has been concluded.”
Moreover, Mangal-Joly had pointed out that the impacts of Kaieteur and Canje multi-well drilling activities scheduled to run from 2022-2027, could not be disassociated from the Stabroek-25 well, Stabroek 12-well, Canje 3-well, Liza Phase 1, Liza Phase 2, Payara, and Yellowtail developments or the activities of other oil and gas actors offshore. She argued that EIAs were needed to determine cumulative impacts, and this required adequate data on the specific and relative locations of each activity, sensitive ecological features, as well as biophysical parametres such as ocean currents, and interactions, among all these parametres.
In reacting to Thursday’s decision, Mangal-Joly said that there is still no proof that any of this data exists at all and still no way that anyone could, at this stage, conclude that the impacts would be insignificant. She said that the Precautionary Principle enshrined in the Environmental Protection Act compels the EPA and EAB to err on the side of caution when there is insufficient information. According to Mangal-Joly, “the scientific truths point only in one direction – the need for EIAs for the Canje and Kaieteur drilling applications and the consideration of cumulative impacts within each EIA, which is conducted to inform a decision on whether or not to grant an environmental permit for an activity.”
ExxonMobil through its subsidiary, Esso Exploration and Production Guyana Limited (EEPGL) had submitted the applications for the Canje and Kaieteur Blocks exploration in 2021. The EPA waived the requirement for EIAs claiming that seismic surveys and deep-water exploratory drilling would not significantly affect the environment. As part of the statutory legal process, the EPA is required to publish all decisions to waive EIAs with its reasons for doing so. The public has 28 days in which it may send its objections to EAB which reviews and decides on whether to uphold the EPA’s waivers or require EIAs.
As such, Mangal-Joly challenged the EPA’s decisions to waive the EIAs back in 2021 when they were made. She submitted written technical arguments to the EAB, but when the public hearing was held in June of this year, she boycotted the hearing in a written notice in which she stated the EAB had “completely failed to meet best practice standards for addressing appeals on EIA waivers in a timely and impartial manner”. Mangal-Joly pointed to the EAB allowing the EPA an inordinate amount of time to develop reasons for waiving the EIAs, which she argued by law and logic must be present in full at the time the EPA announces its decision and triggers the statutory 28-day public appeals period.
In the case of the Kaieteur Block application, she pointed out that the EAB had undermined the statutory process of the appeal that had been triggered on September 24, 2021. It allowed the EPA to re-trigger the appeal process by publishing a notice six months later on March 7, 2022, stating that the agency had received an application from ExxonMobil and was waiving the EIA, as though the very application was not already before the appeals body, the environmentalist pointed out. Mangal-Joly argued too that this was procedurally incorrect as the EPA had no credible reasons to justify its waiver in the first place, and the EAB was “indulging the EPA in a rigging of the process.”
At the public hearing, only representatives from the EPA, ExxonMobil, and the EAB were present, during which the EPA provided an overview of the two proposed drilling campaigns and their screening process and results, while ExxonMobil presented a description of the project, and previous work done with relevance to the Environment Permits for which it had applied.
Mangal-Joly concluded her comments to this newspaper reflecting on the process; “I suspect we have a case here where the scientists on the EAB know what is correct scientifically and morally, but they cannot displease their overlords. Therefore, we have this bizarre decision that allows the EPA to green-light ExxonMobil’s applications while calling for a cumulative impact assessment. The EAB appears to grasp the significance of what is unfolding offshore of Guyana. However, it’s a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of offshore oil and gas activity that is needed, not a cumulative impact assessment, which is a creature of an EIA.”
Need for a Strategic Environmental Assessment of Offshore Development
Mangal-Joly explained that, “An EIA is conducted for a specific project to understand the likely impacts early in the project design phase; this points to ways of adjusting design to minimise impacts or additional activities to manage undesirable impacts. A cumulative assessment is a standard part of an EIA. It allows one to understand the added burden that the proposed project will bring.”
In contrast, she noted that a SEA, also referred to as a Strategic Impact Assessment is not only focussed on a specific project or company’s activity, but would consider the entire offshore geography with all the planned activities from different companies.
According to her, this detailed study would consider sustainable development and environmental protection goals holistically and could guide policy decisions such as oil and gas licensing. Additionally, “It would involve adequate data gathering and continuous monitoring of the situation offshore so that each successive project application could be screened within a comprehensive framework, in a timely manner. A SEA helps make the policy, planning, and environmental management process rational and evidence based. This is what Guyana needs,” she argued.
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