Focus on transition to renewable energy should be priority for Guyana -Arizona professor

Professor Gary Dirks speaking at Moray House on Friday at the Lunch Time Lecture organised by the Guyana Press Association (GPA) in collaboration with Conservation International. (Terrence Thompson photo)

With the world’s focus changing from fossil fuels to renewable energy, one of Guyana’s first priorities should be a similar transition of its own energy sector as it establishes itself as a model green state, Arizona State Sustainable Development Professor Gary Dirks says.

“Your energy system at this point relies on hydrocarbons. You have the real opportunity going forward to look at that system and say, ‘How can I use renewables more effectively?’” Dirks, a former British Petroleum executive who held responsibility for the Asia-Pacific area, said on Friday.

At a Guyana Press Association forum at Moray House, supported by Conservation International, Dirks said that he has no doubt that Guyana can be an oil producer and a model state for green development but it would require a holistic development approach, which focuses a lot on management and diversification of the resources it currently has. “There is absolutely no reason why you can’t have a green growth agenda pursued aggressively and being an oil producing nation at the same time,” he said.

Pointing to energy demands globally, the academic reasoned that Guyana’s large oil find will rake in significant revenue as that resource is produced to serve the needs of multiple sectors. But at the same time, Guyana must ensure that ExxonMobil and other companies protect the environment and leave only the minutest footprint, he said. 

“The world would die without oil today and the reason it would die is because so much of the energy that is vital to the function of society comes from oil today. Therefore, we have to continue to provide the resources so that people all over the world can continue to run their companies, live in their homes and all of the things we need to do with energy. The world needs this oil and if done right, the country of Guyana can benefit from it,” he said.

“This means you have to ensure that ExxonMobil does a good job of protecting the   environment…meeting all the regulations that you would expect, so that their development leaves the smallest footprint possible,” he added.

Recalling resources exploited here in the past, Dirks said that not much prosperity was brought to the people from those and, therefore, the country’s citizenry must be vigilant and work now to ensure that there is no repeat of what occurred in the past.

“Guyana has a lot of resources. This is not the first time that resources have come to the forefront as an opportunity for your country. What you have to be thinking about, in my opinion, is what the best way to use those resources is. What sectors of the economy do you want to see develop? And how do you want them to be developed so that you can minimise the environmental footprint while at the same time raise the standard of living for your population?” he posited.

“I want to emphasize that raising the standard of living is something you need to do… All of these things are on the table and they are all things you can look at,” he added, while urging that this country exploit its uniqueness.

‘Take advantage’

And with the vast acreage of arable land at citizens’ disposal, Dirks noted Guyana’s potential to supply the high regional and global demand for organic produce. He said that this revenue earner can be easy given that Guyana already has very strong agriculture base.

While not naming sugar, he said that some portions of that agriculture base were suffering. But although some may see this as a negative, he argued that it “is an opportunity on the one hand to look at the role of those sectors in your economy,” while also exploring green options. 

“Take advantage that the world is more interested in green products, and they thrive,” he stressed. He also identified eco-tourism as one way in which economic development can take place.

“A lot of change is coming to Guyana, without a doubt, and I think it is very important for its citizenry to be involved and [be] aware about the nature of those changes. I think it is very important for the press to be reporting. I believe you have really unlimited opportunity for where you can go,” Dirks said.

The professor also advised politicians and policymakers to not let the sudden influx of large amounts of revenue distract it from having a green agenda as that could be counterproductive not only for its citizens but Guyana’s place in the global eye.

“The whole world is going green. This isn’t going to happen overnight but that’s the way it is going and there is really no point in Guyana going backwards when the rest of the world is going forward in terms of sustainable development. Guyana has the opportunity in a number of areas, including areas such as organic agriculture and specialised products from the agriculture sector. In the forestry sector, they have the opportunity to be on the leading edge with that and there is where they want to be,” he asserted.

“It’s a false dream to believe that you can somehow go backwards, prosper, and still be in a good position [in relation to] where the rest of the world is going. The focus, in my opinion, should be, ‘How can we get into the forefront of this really important transition that is taking place?’ It allows Guyana to prosper and at the same time create a lot of opportunities in the future,” he added.

The government also has a role in ensuring oil companies adhere to environmental and other safeguards. And while Dirks believes that ExxonMobil, which is scheduled to begin producing oil in 2020, will do its best to avoid environmental maladies, he said that his own experience and common sense would say that there still needs to be vigilance and oversight.

“I was their competitor, they are an excellent oil company. They are incredibly skilled in what they do and there is nobody with any technology better than theirs. There is nobody that is more disciplined in how they do things. They will go out of their way to make sure that they don’t have accidents, that they don’t do things that will, in some sense, compromise your environment, the fisheries or coastal areas, but they have to be watched just like anybody else. It is the responsibility of the press and of the government to ensure that they do the things they said they will do,” he said. 

‘Trust but verify’

Fielding questions from attendees at the forum, Dirk was asked about his work experience with Exxon, given that he spoke highly of them although he was a competitor. He was asked if he felt that the company has ramped up its safety measures since the 1989 Valdez oil spill.

Competition is fierce among the multinationals, Dirks replied, while noting that he respects the company as a competitor. “The reason I believe that they have changed is because they have. I can only think of one significant oil spill they have had in the last decade and they were quite responsible in dealing with that and getting it cleaned up. My experience with them is that they are very professional in what they do and are highly skilled…you can be confident they have the best people in the world in those positions. That is just who they are and how they do things,” he stated.

However, he reiterated that the company needs to be held accountable by Guyana’s government, although he said that a hovering and distrustful attitude from the onset of the agreement would not auger well for either party.

Quoting former US president Ronald Regan, when he spoke of the relationship between his country and the Russians, Dirks advised, “Trust but verify. I think that would be a good rule of thumb for Guyana, too. I don’t think there is anything in it to be suspicious of every move that they make. I think you would waste an enormous amount of time and create a lot of sand in the relationship.”

“But, at the same time, the government needs to take steps to ensure that Exxon is doing the things they are saying they do, they are living up to the contract, that you feel confident in the transparency and confident that you understand what they are telling you.  These are all very reasonable things to do.  But assuming that you have somebody that is just looking to make mischief off your coast is wrong and is not going to be productive in that frame of mind,” he added.

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