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Life is 'better in the Bahamas'? Not with an oil rig offshore

Life is 'better in the Bahamas'? Not with an oil rig offshore
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As the nation turns a new page on the past four years, there is renewed hope that climate change and the environment will be a primary concern domestically and internationally for the Biden administration. There is a great deal to be done, so much so that it would be easy to miss an environmental crisis waiting to happen close to home — specifically, the decision by the Government of the Bahamas to permit oil exploration off its coastal waters.

Unpacking the problem helps U.S. authorities understand why the drilling is happening now, what the implications are for the future, and what might be done to help the Bahamas veer away from its present course. The failing Bahamian economy gave the Bahamian Petroleum Company (BPC), the company behind the effort, the impetus it needed to proceed.  

The Bahamas has been hit hard over the past several years by disasters. Hurricane Dorian, which struck in 2019, had a devastating impact. Recovery efforts were under way when COVID-19 arrived. Putting it in biblical terms, if Dorian was the pestilence, the pandemic was the plague. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) credited the Bahamas with making some economic progress post-Dorian, but now the IMF says the Bahamas is “one of the hardest hit countries in the Caribbean” by the pandemic. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has indicated that “the economic front (in the Bahamas) is worrisome with a projected 12 percent shrink in the country’s economy.”

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The push for drilling as a solution to the Bahamas’ economic woes is ephemeral at best. First, the environmental concerns are very real. In particular, writes Adriana Brasileiro in the Miami Herald, “Environmentalists say the drilling poses a series of potential threats to marine ecosystems in the Caribbean and in Florida.” This is an issue not just for the Bahamas but also for the entire region, including Florida. If there is a spill — a primary concern of environmentalists — it could have a dramatic impact on the coast of Florida.  

It also is not clear whether drilling for oil will help the Bahamian economy. In an essay for CNN online, Alexandra Cousteau writes: “Oil is toxic to ocean wildlife, and a spill in Bahamian waters could destroy its pristine coral reefs and fisheries. These natural resources are the foundation of the Bahamian economy. Half of the country’s GDP comes from its fishing, recreation and tourism industries, which generate around $7.7 billion annually and support 122,000 jobs.” When one thinks of life being “better in the Bahamas,” the picture is not of an oil rig off the coast. 

The future — including the economic future — lies with renewables, not with oil. In addition to environmentalists who oppose offshore drilling, President Trump prohibited it off the coast of North Carolina and Florida. While an important move to protect U.S. coastal waters, it does not remove the threat; the nearest point of the Bahamian archipelago lies just 50 miles off the Florida coast.

The dream of drilling as a way to boost the Bahamian economy has to be offset by other efforts that will provide a path forward for the Bahamian people. Tourism is key to the past, present and future of the Bahamas. Once the pandemic is under control, the pent-up desire for many Americans to travel again will be helpful to the Bahamian economy, since American tourists are the backbone of the island nation’s tourism industry. 

The Government of the Bahamas got a loan from the IMF last year, which should help boost the economy. At the same time, it is important that IMF conditionality not hurt the working women and men of the Bahamas. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has argued that IMF conditionality can be too harsh and counterproductive. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) by the private sector is another way to help the Bahamian economy. The UNDP has suggested that the economy diversify. Working with UNDP and other international and bilateral U.S. organizations is a good way to implement such an effort.  

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One possibility would be for the Bahamas to develop and promote its own version of eco-tourism. If the Bahamian government and private sector worked together on developing renewable energy — wind and solar — it could attract environmentally-focused tourists. There is a growing movement of travelers wishing to enjoy the pristine beauty of places such as the Bahamas while being part of a movement to protect the environment. 

Key to all of this will be increased direct U.S. government help to the Bahamas. It is useful to note that the Chinese government is investing in the Bahamas, and while it is not a threat at the moment to the U.S., it could be if the U.S. does not help the Bahamian government and people.  The U.S. hasn’t had an ambassador to the Bahamas for over a decade. It could start by appointing one who works with international organizations, the private sector, the Bahamian government and, most importantly, the Bahamian people to help turn things around for one of the closest neighbors of the U.S. 

Patrick Griffin, a professor at American University, worked as an assistant to President Clinton and was secretary to the Democratic Conference in the U.S. Senate. 

William Danvers is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School and worked on national security issues for the Clinton and Obama administrations.