Two citizens of Guyana have filed suit against the Guyana government for what they say is an unconstitutional agreement to let ExxonMobil defile coastal waters and accelerate the climate crisis.
It is the first lawsuit in any Caribbean country to assert constitutional grounds to attempt to block oil exploitation of the environment.
The lawsuit was filed by university professor Troy Thomas, a university professor and former president of Transparency Institute Guyana, an anti-corruption group, and Quadad de Freitas, a tourist guide from the Rupununi region. Together they claim Guyana’s having granted licenses to ExxonMobil for oil exploration is in direct violation of the government’s constitutional responsibility to protect the nation’s environment for them and future generations of Guyana citizens.
What is at stake for both Guyana and ExxonMobil is the leasing of the Stabroek ocean exploration block located offshore Guyana. That block is worth billions to both the country and the company.
It is also worth a fortune in ongoing business to Hess Corporation and a subsidiary of the China National Offshore Oil Company, who are in partnership with ExxonMobil in the offshore drilling operations.
Together the companies believe there is likely a minimum of eight billion barrels of crude oil within the Stabroek exploration region. There are also likely trillions of cubic feet of natural gas under those waters.
The exploration there is a direct result of actions provided by the World Bank. The bank helped draft preliminary legislation for the country going back to the 1980s, in the form of laws that would facilitate extensive drilling within the country and offshore. Despite the bank in recent years having declared it would never directly fund fossil fuel exploration and drilling efforts, it was also a principal funder of a law firm working with ExxonMobil for further modifications of those original laws, for the favor and benefit of fossil fuel colossus.
The Stabroek project is ExxonMobil’s second largest oil development project in the world, second only to its operations within America’s Permian Basin. The company’s exploration in Stabroek began two years ago, in 2019. It launched a second project in the area, Payara, last year. A third major drilling initiative under the name Liza-2 starts in 2022.
The size of the project and its inherent risks to the environment drew environmental activists to try to shut it down over a technicality sometime earlier. The activists claimed the government had no right to authorize the licenses for drilling in the region, on the grounds that just one of the partners in the joint venture had a valid environmental permit for the work.
A judge ruled against the activists’ claims and work continued.
The new case continues that fight but uses the higher authority of the Guyana constitution to justify the need to shut down the drilling work offshore. The lawsuit asks the court to block the government from allowing all activities which contribute in a sizeable way to global heating and the climate crisis, as well as collateral damage to the environment in the form of sea level rise and ocean acidification.
“This is a classic public interest case,” said Meliknda Janki, the legal counsel representing the plaintiffs in this litigation.
“In 2001-02 I lobbied the Guyanese government very hard to put the right to a healthy environment in the constitution,” she said. “It’s in the interests of everyone to know what the law means, whether this oil production amounts to a violation of the right to a healthy environment.”
Janki hopes the court will see it the way the claimants will. With so many billions of dollars at stake for the government of Guyana, and each of the partners in the drilling, few expect the claimants’ case to succeed – despite the horrific damage these operations will cause to the planet both short-term and long-term.