Oil and gas and the public’s right to know

On Wednesday September 6th, the Ministry of Natural Resources issued a media release on what it says was the first in a planned series of Stakeholder Engagements on the draft Local Content Policy Framework for the country’s oil and gas sector. The desirability of recognizing and acceding to a culture of transparency in matters pertaining to the oil and gas industry has already become an issue for some measure of public discourse though it has to be said that what is unfolding at this time is what one might call a multi-level discourse with most of the questions being raised by a handful of individuals and institutions whose inquiries and concerns appear to derive from investigations into the experiences in the oil and gas sector elsewhere in the world.

On the other hand, there is the considerably larger group of ordinary Guyanese who are, as well, keen to be kept abreast of developments in the sector as they unfold, but whose basic knowledge of the sector and the issues that are important at this stage is rather more limited than that of the smaller, better-informed group.

The government says that, in principle, it is amenable to acceding to the public’s right to know in the matter of the oil and gas industry though it makes the point as well that some measure of confidentiality will be necessary in the broader national interest. The issue that arises here has to do with just how much information should be placed in the public domain and this is where there might be differences of opinion between those who are pushing for what one might call maximum disclosure and government, which might be inclined to be more cautious.

One might add, incidentally, that the issue of the extent of disclosure is likely to arise in areas that go well beyond Local Content Policy and into other spheres of the broader contract between the Government of Guyana and Exxon Mobil.

Part of the reason for the current high-profile exchanges in the media on the issue of just how much information should be made public has to do with two issues, primarily. The first is the historical inclination by government, over the years, to err on the side of withholding information which it deems to be sensitive and what has been a consequential tendency on the part of the populace to be mistrustful of government’s motives. The second reason for the high-profile exchanges has to do with the fact that we now live in an era where global access to information on the oil and gas sector (and on any other issue for that matter) has become far, far easier for advocates of maximum disclosure to secure information that can   challenge official positions. Some of that is beginning to emerge in the discourse between themselves and the government.

In both style and content the Ministry of Natural Resources’ September 6th media release on this week’s stakeholder forum is an attempt to infuse a measure of public confidence into the government’s assertion that it is amenable to a level of disclosure that satisfies the public interest. Whether it approaches satisfactorily responding to the Local Content issues that have arisen is a matter for the various groups and individuals participating in the discourses to determine, though it might be instructive to make some comments from the perspective of government and the public’s right to know.

The first point is that government will not be keen to make it seem as though we are slipping back into the era of simply withholding information which ought correctly to be placed in the public domain purely on a whim, which of course, would create a climate of mistrust with regard to its motives; secondly, any attempt to withhold such information is likely to be responded to by media which, it has to be said, are making a determined effort to get their heads around the whole oil and gas issue. Government, one imagines, would not be keen to find itself on opposite sides from the media in the matter of free flow of information in relation to oil and gas.

To return to the issue of the September 6 media release it has to be said that it is presented in the customary bureaucratic style of a document that talks a great deal but studiously avoids saying too much. We know, for example, the names of the individuals and agencies that participated in the forum, the venue and duration of the forum. The release further notified us that there was a ‘question and answer period following the formal presentations” and that the ensuing exchange was “vibrant” though it studiously avoided saying anything whatsoever about the substance of the aforementioned ‘question and answer period,” the “formal presentations” and the “vibrant” ensuing exchange. It is, frankly, one of those media statements at which governments and other types of bureaucracies have become pretty adept. It satisfies the procedural requirement of a public announcement regarding the staging of a particular forum while ensuring that the information that is disseminated (which, in the extant instance is really very little) is kept within parameters with which it is comfortable.

What has changed, over time (as has already been mentioned) is first, a public (or publics) that is/are more insistent on a much freer domestic flow of information than had obtained in the past and, secondly, broader technological change that has significantly enhanced the global flow of information. Arguably, the equation amounts to a challenge for government. It has to decide whether old habits will die hard – in which case it will then become a victim of unfavourable popular judgement – or whether it will accept that we live in an era of freer – not reckless but freer – flow of information and that a democratic environment cannot be separated from an insistence on the public’s right to know.

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