Oil and gas: Complexities and public enlightenment

It is hard to think of any national issue that has secured more traction with the populace over the past two years than the issue of the discovery of oil offshore Guyana and the processes involved in recovering and exploiting the commodity for the nation’s benefit.

For reasons that have to do with our lack of familiarity with the oil industry, however,  the discourse has been, largely, a lopsided one, its most principal defect being the gap between the level of interest in what oil could mean for the future of Guyana and our actual knowledge of how the industry works. Accordingly, the interest as well as the discourse has centred around the reports on the volumes of oil that have been found offshore Guyana which have been accompanied by fanciful calculations as to how all of this converts into development for Guyana.

Government, itself, finds itself in a position in which in various ways, some of which are becoming increasingly evident, it is itself not adequately equipped to initiate a public education campaign that can sensitize the Guyanese to all of the implications of an oil industry including, particularly, the implications of having to interact with external stakeholders, not least, ExxonMobil. Truth be told, the oil industry is not the sort of industry which, in many respects, lends itself to the kinds of uncomplicated explanations that might apply elsewhere.

That is precisely the reason why the relationship between government and the population as a whole is informed by what sometimes appears to be a high level of dissonance, a dialogue of the deaf. It is, quite often, a matter, of individuals and groups holding forth strenuously on which they have little more than the slightest peripheral knowledge.

Public discourse at the level of the media has been limited to reportage and feature articles which, frankly, are limited in the extent of their importance not because there is any lack of importance in what they have to say but because the complexity of the issues themselves creates challenges in their deciphering.

What the authorities have failed to do up until now is to make allowances for the need for ordinary Guyanese to grasp at least the essence of the oil phenomenon and just what it needs for us. If we are to do so there is an urgent need to move beyond the preponderance of high-level oil and gas ‘summits’ erudite lectures and newspaper articles that must themselves rely on the points-of-view of specialists whose deficiency appears to repose in their inability (or perhaps their unwillingness) to explain issues in language that the largest stakeholder group, the Guyanese population, can understand.

Having regard to its obligation to serve as a critical link between the policy makers and the public in terms of ensuring a smooth two-way flow of information (which, by definition means that media reportage must be presented in a manner that enables effective public understanding) the media itself must not only be well informed but must also be sufficiently ‘comfortable’ with (and confident in) the information it receives that it can perform its reporting functions in a manner that enables effective information dissemination.

There can be no question regarding the level of public interest and what is, frequently, the dichotomy between the complexity of the message and the lack of understanding of the receiver. A few nights ago the Stabroek Business was invited to participate in an off-the-record gaff between a small group of very ordinary (ordinary but by no means unintelligent) Guyanese and one of the most eminent Guyanese scientists living and working in the diaspora. The forum had been arranged to facilitate they very kind of discourse that has been lacking in Guyana in the subject of oil and gas. It was an exciting forum particularly because, on the one hand, it was benefitting from the presence of a reputable Guyanese scientist with impeccable credentials, on the one hand, but on the other the ‘audience’ could feel free not to have any inhibitions whatsoever about exposing their lack of knowledge of the subject. What made the forum valuable was the complete absence of inhibition that informed the exchange and it was because of that very communication that a lot was said and a lot was learnt and because of the presence of someone “who knew,” a number of myths were dispelled and at least for the small numbers there present what resulted was a considerable degree of enlightenment. What transpired at that forum was a microcosm of what ought to be a wider preoccupation on the part of the Government of Guyana.

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