S8: Light, Sweet Crude
For decades now, the fossil fuel industry has told the same story: Oil equals development and prosperity. Access. Equality. Stability. A better quality of life. As the world’s fossil fuel companies race to tap the last of the planet’s oil reserves we have a chance to examine that promise up close, in real time.
Several miles off the coast of Guyana sits one of the world’s largest oil reserves. In 2015, ExxonMobil, which had held offshore drilling leases in the country for decades, announced it had found oil and would begin production as soon as possible. Government officials quickly got in line, and in 2019 the first barrels shipped from ExxonMobil Guyana. Today, Exxon projects that oil from Guyana could account for 25% of its total production in the next few years. But environmentalists and government corruption watchdogs have begun to push back on the project. Why start an oil industry in the midst of climate crisis? And especially in a country at great risk of climate impacts? Via a contract that will sooner put Guyana in debt than make it a rich oil state, no less?
In just a few years, Exxon has co-opted both government and civil society, buying up social license in every corner of the country. Oil executives and Guyanese officials are still telling the story that oil equals development and prosperity, and on paper Guyana is the fastest-growing economy in the world, but average citizens aren’t benefiting from the boom. Today, there’s only one journalist left covering the project with any sort of skepticism, and one lawyer left willing to take it on in court. In this special crossover season of Drilled and Damages, we look at what oil colonialism looks like in the 21st century, and why everyone should care.
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S8 Ep1: The Boom
Five years ago, Kiana Wilburg was a new reporter when ExxonMobil executives and Guyanese government officials announced they had found oil 40 miles offshore. Wilburg and her newsroom had to quickly learn about the industry and this company that was suddenly so influential in their country and were left with just one question: exactly what kind of a deal had the country signed onto? Transcript
S8 Ep2 | The Contract
After a year’s worth of pressure from local press and civil society groups, the government releases the contract to the public. It’s worse than anyone thought possible, and even the IMF calls it an unfair deal for Guyana. Some local leaders start calling on government officials to try to renegotiate the contract, but others say that’s a fool’s errand and the only place to fight the contract is in court. Transcript
S8 Ep3 | Unlimited Liability
One person in Guyana knows both the inner workings of oil companies and the intricacies of Guyanese environmental law better than most. Melinda Janki grew up in Guyana, but went to school at Oxford and then worked as in-house counsel for oil giant BP before returning home. Decades ago she started to help strengthen the country’s environmental laws. In 2020 she started filing suits against the government to block offshore drilling. Her latest suit alleges that the government of Guyana has not required large enough of an insurance policy to cover the level of damage an offshore catastrophe could cause. Transcript
S8 Ep4 | Constitutional Violation
Melinda Janki has filed seven separate cases aimed at blocking oil drilling in Guyana, but only one of them explicitly names climate change as a problem the project is guaranteed to exacerbate. It’s a constitutional case that invokes Guyana’s constitutional right to a healthy environment—an amendment Janki herself helped to write. Plaintiffs Dr. Troy Thomas and Quedad DeFreitas argue that the government’s choice to fast-track permits and oil production threatens their right to a healthy environment, and the rights of future generations too. The government of Guyana argues that, ironically, it needs oil money to adapt to climate change. Transcript