Oil and the public dissemination of information

Hardly a day has passed over the last two years without there being some reference to oil and gas in the local media. Indeed, it is entirely fair to say that Guyana’s oil and gas find just over two years ago has brought a new dimension to media reporting. Media houses have literally had to hit the ground running against a backdrop of limited previous local knowledge. The knowledge deficit, understandably, has led to reporting errors and there have been times when the situation has not been helped by government officials’ own limited understanding of the complexities of the industry. This is why, one suspects, there has not been, up until now, a reliable facility specifically concerned with the public dissemination of information on the oil industry.

This, of course, has to seen against the backdrop of the prevailing environment of curiosity and more pertinently, expectancy, that arose out of the announcement that 2020 had been named as the year in which oil recovery is likely to commence. Lest we forget, Guyana’s vain search for an economic el dorado over half a century of political independence has evolved against the backdrop of periodic hints that oil might well be our salvation. There is, therefore, a real sense that the country is anxiously waiting on oil to ‘deliver’ our el dorado.  Here there is a danger that the existing lack of general knowledge of the industry can lead (or, indeed, may have already led) to fanciful and exalted expectations that might end in bitter disappointment and all of the accompanying negatives.

For all the chatter about oil and its prospects for Guyana’s economy the million-dollar question has to do with just when Guyana will become what we loosely describe as an ‘oil economy,’ that is to say, whether there is a definitive time frame within which we can expect the proceeds from our potential oil wealth to impact in a holistic way on the fortunes of the people of Guyana. This becomes the most complex of questions when account is taken of the assorted imponderables that arise in seeking an answer. Some of those imponderables have to do with the political direction in which the country goes in the period ahead and whether, for instance, those who rule opt to utilize such returns as accrue from the oil sector to enhance the quality of life for the people of the country as a whole, or whether the dream is swallowed up in graft and corruption.  The fact of the matter is that whatever we might hope for, there already exists an abundance of evidence that good government and prudent governance cannot be guaranteed down the road, whatever the prevailing altruistic soundings of the incumbent administration. We must, as well, not forget that the fortunes of oil are, as well, a function of a variety of external imponderables over which Guyana has no control so that whatever local assurances are given these cannot be accepted without the proverbial grain of salt.

The challenge of ensuring that public expectations do not move too far ahead of objective reality as far as the development of Guyana’s oil industry is concerned is one that the government must respond to fairly quickly since, as has already been mentioned, unfulfilled expectations can have unwholesome consequences. Contextually, whether or not the flow of public information is suitably responsive to the needs of the Guyanese people is questionable, at least up to this time. This is not to say that information on the Government of Guyana’s engagements with ExxonMobil and its various bilateral and multilateral discourses on the creation and management of an oil industry are not relevant to the broader conversations that it must have in the runup to 2020 and beyond. The fact of the matter is, however, that we are yet to begin what one might describe as an earnest grass roots conversation with the Guyanese people that responds to their mundane curiosities and addresses these enquiries that have to do with the prospects of oil for their well-being and the well-being of their families and their communities. People, ordinary people that is, are unlikely to pay any real interest in high-level engagements with external agencies on oil-related issues except they can find ways of linking these to their own concerns about a time frame within which they can expect to see the proceeds from oil make a difference to their lives.

If there is every justification in appreciating the need for exercising discretion in discourses with external partners that have to do with the oil industry, the government must be mindful of moving to the bizarre extreme of interpreting discretion to mean a condition in which every bit of pertinent information has to be wrung from the relevant public official(s). The importance of oil to the future of Guyana more than justifies a far more generous – even if careful – sharing of information with the Guyanese people so that there can be a much greater sense of clarity and with that, enlightenment.

One useful piece of reportage that emerged from last week’s meeting between government officials and representatives of the Inter-American Development Bank has to do with the need for government to decide on “how it wants to manage the resources” from oil and the need to ensure “the best possible deal for the country,” which, coincidentally, are amongst the issues that are being raised in public. Here, government has to ensure that an unwavering confidentiality posture in relation to the public dissemination of information on the oil industry does not seriously compromise its obligation to satisfy the legitimate information needs of the Guyanese people.

The time is due for the creation of an entity responsible for the sustained public dissemination of continuously updated and reliable information on oil and gas and more specifically on the pace of progress towards the growth and development of Guyana’s oil industry. Such a facility may or may not be set up within the Ministry of Natural Resources though, wherever it is created, it must have access to the most reliable information on the pace of progress towards  the growth of the sector and just how the evolution of that growth fits in with plans for the country’s development.