Facing questions from a parliamentary committee, ExxonMobil yesterday denied that it was funding any political party or political initiatives in Guyana.
A meeting between the Parliamentary Sectoral Committee on Natural Resources and the US oil giant became testy when allegations of possible funding of political initiatives were put to the company by opposition members.
In the Parliament Chamber, ExxonMobil quickly shot down suggestions that it was funding any initiative of the A Partnership for National Unity and Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) coalition, saying that the company was not politically aligned.
Opposition members of the committee also raised questions about ExxonMobil’s funding of international environmental body, Conservation International (CI), stating that this was a clear conflict of interest for the latter.
Last evening, in response to questions from Stabroek News, Conservation International rejected the assertions by the parliamentary committee members, stating that notwithstanding the funding, the organisation will remain objective and impartial.
“As a science-based organization with over two decades of conservation success in Guyana, Conservation International is in a unique position to help Guyana achieve its green development goals. We carefully deliberated and determined that this effort will achieve its goals while also maintaining our independence and objectivity,” Global representative Salma Balramy said in response to the questions from this newspaper.
“We’ve worked with Guyana’s government and people in over 50 communities to help protect nearly three million acres of indigenous lands while improving livelihoods. As long-time partners of Guyana’s commitment to its people and ecosystems, Conservation International is confident this is a necessary step at this critical time in Guyana’s development,” she added.
Government representative on the committee Ronald Bulkan also rebuffed the line of questioning by the opposition MPs, lamenting that it was “a shame” that the meeting had descended to allegations against the company and CI, and members did not use the opportunity to grill the company on how Guyana’s citizenry were benefiting from its presence and works here.
“Sorry ma’am, I have to stop you. ExxonMobil is not involved with politics in Guyana. We don’t choose sides, we’re apolitical. We’re not funding any political party, any political side, any political initiatives, none, just full stop,” ExxonMobil’s Country Director Rod Henson said as he interrupted People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) member Pauline Sukhai during her questioning about political funding here by the company.
ExxonMobil, according to a letter dispatched to it by the committee, was to “provide an update” on the “company’s operations and answer questions of concern to members.”
But while Henson had replied saying that he “welcomed the opportunity…to provide an update on EEPGL’s (ExxonMobil’s subsidiary) operations,” he explained yesterday that the communication was bungled as he believed that he would only be updating on the local content aspect of EEPGL’s operations and thus only came prepared to deal with that subject.
Nonetheless, he said that he would answer questions outside of his prepared subject as best as he could but provided no answers on who initiated the controversial US$18 million signing bonus between EEPGL and the government or what were short and long-term cost projections of work by his company.
Present at yesterday’s meeting were committee Chairman Odinga Lumumba and fellow opposition PPP/C MPs Neil Kumar, Pauline Sukhai and Yvonne Pearson. For the government side, Audwin Rutherford, Jermaine Figueira and Bulkan were present. The Committee was informed that Minister of Finance Winston Jordan was out of the country and Minister of State Joseph Harmon was meeting with residents in the flooded areas of Region Nine.
Henson made a presentation on general operations of the company, with a focus on local content, where he echoed earlier positions of tempering expectations that the footprint for many direct related oil and gas jobs would be met. He said again that there is only room for a few hundred direct jobs.
Highlights and highpoints were given as Henson also declared that for the first quarter of this year the company paid out US$21 million for products and services from which 227 Guyanese companies benefitted.
Then came the question and answer segment of the hearing, which focused heavily on local content and the grant given to CI.
Sukhai said that she was concerned about word in the public that the company was helping to fund government’s Green State Development Strategy (GSDS) though its partnership with CI.
Earlier this week, the philanthropic arm of ExxonMobil, the ExxonMobil Foundation, announced US$10 million ($2 billion) in funding for CI and the University of Guyana to train Guyanese for sustainable job openings and to expand community-supported conservation.
A statement from the Foundation had said that the investment is also aimed at supporting Guyana’s Green State Development Plan, the country’s 15-year development plan that, among other things, intends to diversify Guyana’s economy and balance economic growth with sustainable management and conservation of the country’s ecosystems.
This was pounced upon by Sukhai.
“The Green State Development Strategy is not in its totality or comprehensively documented and consulted upon as yet. In fact, that strategy has not even reached the Parliament for its debate or for its approval or to be laid as government’s main focal point strategy. There is a line of thought out in the public that ExxonMobil is actually funding a political initiative that is not yet established and approved by the National Assembly and that is, as I mentioned before, the Green State Development Strategy,” Sukhai said before she was quickly stopped by Henson from going further.
“I would like to say that there are concerns out there, which is speaking to the fact –two lines of thought and two lines of criticism-and that is CI is an international NGO and CI is considered to be an international watchdog on environment, nature and all the things that go with conservation, preservation of our environment and so on. Don’t you think that CI being a grantee of ten million US dollars is actually in a conflict of interest because they should be monitoring?” she nevertheless pressed.
She said that that while Henson may want to stop her questions, answers were needed as, “we have to stop the concern in the public domain, because that is what is circulating and that’s why I chose to raise it here with you, so you can have a chance to clarify.”
A seemingly shocked and perturbed Henson replied, “I can’t control every individual’s thoughts and opinions, but I appreciate your opportunity to allow me to say that’s complete hogwash.”
Henson would later be asked by the Chairman to withdraw the “hogwash” remark and he did but he stressed that he still wanted to dissuade any views that his company was political.
Further probing came from Chairman Lumumba, who wanted to know if when ExxonMobil signed the agreement with CI, whether “there was government input or government approval” and why the company does not see its funding as a conflict given CI’s watchdog role here.
“This is our ExxonMobil initiative. This was not directed by the government. This is a good thing. ExxonMobil partners with this organisation around the world. It is not just Conservation International, this is an excellent partnership with the University of Guyana,” Henson said.
“Chair, I think Conservation International would disagree with you and I disagree with you, respectfully. I don’t think this impedes Conservation International’s role in anyway in the country. We made the government aware but again this is an ExxonMobil initiative, something we chose to do,” he added.
Questions were also posited by Sukhai and Kumar on if ExxonMobil had a role in the recent announcement that 100 sugar workers were getting skills training though a programme with the Ministry of Natural Resources.
“Is Exxon funding any of that training?” Sukhai asked, to which Henson replied, “No, we are not funding that.”
Questions were asked about the 227 companies which ExxonMobil said benefited in the first quarter and the Chairman asked for the list and services provided to be made available to the Committee so that it could be analysed to determine if the country was getting value for money. He pointed out also that since the list was publicly released there had been many criticisms and questions linger on if the list met the definition of what local content should be.
A puzzled Henson said that he had given the list to government and questioned if the bipartisan committee was not part of government. “Aren’t you the government?” Henson asked, to which Lumumba replied “No, we are the opposition.” The ExxonMobil head said that he was prepared to go over the list with the committee if it desired.
Kumar also spoke of sugar workers being “on the breadline” and of “closed sugar estates” and wanted to also know if the company was helping government with legislation crafting as it pertained to local content. Henson said that the Guyana was a sovereign country and the company had no role in how its government spends money and could not be a part of law crafting.
Bulkan zoomed in on the opposition’s posture and told the Chairman that it was regrettable that the meeting yesterday seemed to stray from the focus of ExxonMobil’s operations.
“I would like to take strong objection to the [statement that the] government in one instance has placed persons on the breadline and that the government has closed sugar estates. I think we are in danger of being sidetracked from the purpose of this meeting,” Bulkan said.
“We have also heard, and I think it is it is regrettable, that the GSDS, as initiated by this administration, is political. It is not a political initiative, it is a government initiative and I think it is unfair for us to come and say here that it is not fully developed and to suggest that the activities of the company’s funding to CI, to suggest it has an impact on the GSDS. I think it is unhelpful…,” he added.
Following the meeting, Henson told reporters that it was his error about the meeting’s overall focus as he came only to deal with local content. He said he welcomed the opportunity to talk and would take up another invite if extended.