When writing an article, a writer wants his first few words and sentences to grab the attention of the reader and to set the tone for the rest of the article. And this is what happened when “national energy business correspondent” Clifford Krauss, writing in the New York Times (NYT) in penning his provocatively labelled article, “The $20 Billion Question for Guyana,” started off with phrases such as, “vast, watery wilderness, only three paved highways, a few dirt roads, villages which sit on stilts, dugout canoes,” topped off with “play naked” referencing children in remote areas.
By the end of the second paragraph of just two sentences, but fifty-four words, our Capital city and coastal towns and villages were likened to “musty clapboard towns” possibly referencing the wooden “lap edge” or overlapping siding of many houses here in Guyana. Reference to the “unreliable” power grid and “blackouts” topped off the second paragraph.
Our “unreliable” power grid aside, it was not lost on Guyanese the stark contrast that Mr Krauss sought to draw with his $20 billion headline and “vast, watery wilderness” intro. With a preamble that paints a very bleak picture of a country then followed up by mention of the huge conglomerate ExxonMobil drilling “eight gushing discovery wells offshore,” it seems quite clear that the author has painted ExxonMobil as the proverbial knight in shining armour about to rescue that distressingly dismal, dusky damsel as he has painted Guyana.
Of course, the reaction was swift and sharp and all affected parties here in Guyana sought to make their two cents known in the $20 billion-dollar question. ExxonMobil itself wasted no time in making it clear that they had neither financed the trip to Guyana by Krauss, nor commissioned the article in any way. They had simply facilitated interviews as others were also interviewed by Krauss, including senior government functionaries.
Minister of Finance, Winston Jordan was one who publicly took umbrage at the report, in response urging Krauss to “take a closer look at our country, its proud and resourceful people and our resilience in the face of the odds.” Indeed, Krauss did entirely miss the “soul” of the people in his writing, but this might be expected if all he did was talk to businessmen and government functionaries. Jordan urged Guyanese to “reject the article and to look towards the future with hope in our heritage, in the legacies of our ancestors and in the path, that is being crafted for us now.”
But rejecting the article in its entirety might not be such a good idea at all. The demeaning intro aside, and several other misplaced characterizations in the piece, does not render the article totally without merit. Krauss writes, “If history is any guide, countries that discover oil often waste their opportunity, as the resource blends seamlessly with corruption. Countries with weak political institutions like Guyana are especially vulnerable.” History is always a good guide to consult in such matters, and the reality check for us as Guyanese is that we do have a weak political system, and this weak system is dominated by two major political parties that have polarized the nation since their split from one united party into two: the People’s Progressive Party and the People’s National Congress.
“Guyana has recently attracted prominent international media attention which fell short of fair and balanced reportage,” was Minister of Natural Resources, Raphael Trotman’s more nuanced condemnation of the article. He added that, “the indomitable spirit of the Guyanese people will rise to the occasion and prevail as Guyana is poised at the entrance of a new dimension of national and human development.” Indeed, Clifford Krauss was obviously not aware of the “indomitable spirit” of the Guyanese people as he wrote, but then again, maybe he didn’t care. Instead he reminded us that, “Senior government officials here have little experience regulating a big oil industry or negotiating with international companies.” This serious shortfall in capacity has affected the quality of the deal that Guyana was able to make with ExxonMobil as several pundits have posited, with some even going the route of demanding a re-negotiation of the deal.
But what has government been doing to address its own capacity and the capacity of Guyanese businesses and individuals to make the most of the impending Oil & Gas economy? Krauss writes, “Guyana’s government stands to take in more than $6 billion in royalties and taxes annually by the end of the 2020s, according to the Norwegian consultancy Rystad Energy.” Over the years since 2015, this administration has seen several revisions by ExxonMobil of the estimates for production possibilities in the Stabroek Block. Just this July Stabroek News reported that ExxonMobil revised the “discovered recoverable resources for the Stabroek Block offshore Guyana to more than 4 billion oil-equivalent barrels.”
And what does Krauss have to say about Guyana’s readiness? “For all the international attention that Guyana’s oil bonanza is beginning to generate, Mr Dennison and the Department of Natural Resources have a mere nine technically trained people responsible for regulating oil production, engineering and geological research.”
If it seems that Guyana is not truly ready for the impending oil economy, it is because it isn’t. It is pointless for us to take umbrage at certain mischaracterizations of the country in the NYT’s piece, but closing our eyes to the insights that the article offers as to the many pitfalls facing the country as an oil economy. Venezuela is a stark reminder of this, and even Trinidad and Tobago offers near to home insights as to how easily an oil-based economy can slip into near ruin.
Krauss’ article, “The $20 Billion Dollar Question for Guyana” might just be his “two cents worth” of unsolicited opinion, but there might be value yet in a careful consideration of the pitfalls ahead for Guyana 2020.