Site icon Conservation news

Guyana’s future and challenges in oil: Q&A with filmmaker Shane Thomas McMillan

Guyana lies at the heart of the Guiana Shield, one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Photo by Tom Vierus / Urgewald.

  • A new documentary by a German team explores Guyana’s offshore oil discoveries and environmental risks.
  • The offshore natural resources found off the coast of South America include an estimated 13.6 billion barrels of oil and 32 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
  • The discoveries, which have been accumulating during the past five years, present significant challenges in protecting other natural resources put at risk by the exploitation.

Five years ago – where the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea meet is the small South American country of Guyana – an offshore oil exploration struck black gold. At the time, it was estimated that ExxonMobil alone could extract 8 billion barrels of oil from the oil field discovered about 120 miles off Guyana’s coast.

It was one of the largest fossil fuel discoveries of modern times.

Since then, ExxonMobil, which is at the forefront of the project, has found 17 more locations in what’s known as the Stabroek Block. Stabroek is the old name the Dutch used for Guyana’s capital before it was renamed Georgetown by the British.

To date, the discoveries in the entire Guyana-Suriname basin now include 13.6 billion barrels of oil and 32 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. More than a dozen entities have partnered with ExxonMobil, and the Guyanese government has received assistance from the World Bank for the project. The environmental risks are significant, though.

Mongabay caught up with the team at Germany-based international environmental and human rights non-profit Urgewald and asked their collaborator, freelance filmmaker Shane Thomas McMillan about the 45-minute film, his role as director and editor, Guyana’s future in oil, and what lies ahead.

Guyana’s coastal capital city of Georgetown. Photo by Tom Vierus / Urgewald.

Mongabay (MB): What was surprisingly the most difficult part about putting this documentary together?

Shane Thomas McMillan (STM): When we began this project, the film that we envisioned had a lot to do with traveling to meet a few incredible people and learn about their work and their ideas in charting an alternative path for Guyana. It was really imagined as a journey and to produce that we had about three different productions trips envisioned, but we only got to complete the first of them.

On that trip, we sent our team to Guyana to meet local activists, conservationists and political experts. The idea was to get an understanding of the landscape there, make first connections, and maybe follow up with another trip towards the end of the production. Our team worked for almost two weeks and was meant to carry out some interviews in Trinidad and Tobago to cover the regional aspects of the story, when a global epidemic struck. Some even came close to not making it home due to the travel restrictions that were being imposed in the first days of the worldwide outbreak. Beyond being a terrible development for everyone on the planet, it was a big problem for our film.

Having to change the way we made the film called a lot into question. Rethinking our approach, we decided to broaden the scope of the film and also tell a larger story about the processes that are at play in the country, and what the World Bank and its partner institutions are doing to bring them into play. This opened our eyes to a different set of potential experts for the film and gave us, I think, a bit more freedom to try out a different way of telling the story. Thanks to the wonderful contributions of archives and partner organizations, we were able to build what our protagonist Luke would call “a much wider view” of the story and hopefully gives the viewer a better feeling for the institution that we have placed under the microscope in this film.

MB: Are there any challenges that stick out?

STM: Doing a film about an institution that is so large, complex, powerful and intransparent is really not easy. Considering that they are a bank, it is really hard to find aggregate numbers about their work, a hole that our expert Heike Mainhardt was able to fill. And because the Bank has so much influence, it is honestly hard to get even the bravest people to share everything they know about it.

In a similar vein, the fight against oil, especially in Guyana itself, is very dangerous. People like Melinda Janki very much put their lives on the line for the things they believe in. This is why we had to stay on solid ground in our storytelling and did our best to not endanger our collaborators in the production of the film.

Senior Researcher Heike Mainhardt from Urgewald. Image by Shane McMillan / Urgewald.

MB: What aspects of local politics did your team find at play?

STM: To be perfectly honest, it was very important to me to focus the film on the World Bank and stay out of Guyanese political affairs to the best of my ability. This film is targeted at a global audience and as a journalist myself, I think it is important to leave current Guyanese politics to the journalists working in the country.

That said, politics are an unavoidable aspect of life and filmmaking. And our experience with local politics is best summed up in the film by a quote in the film from Patrick Chesney, who essentially says that Guyana has had political instability for too long, especially in regards to its electoral process. Our team arrived in Guyana a few days after the election that followed the long-delayed re-election process as a result of a vote of no confidence in 2018. There were street protests and our team’s rental car was struck by a stray bullet. Months later, the results of that election had still not been released, as the outgoing government was unwilling to accept the results.

All of our interviews pointed to a future in which oil and gas development in the country has the potential to make that instability in the country even worse.

Fishing boats on the edge of Georgetown. Fishing is a crucial component in the regional economy and could be devastated by a well blowout like the Deep Water Horizon incident off the coast of the United States. Photo by Tom Vierus / Urgewald.

MB: How do you see this issue playing out regionally?

STM: There are obviously many political aspects to this situation that I think are hard to calculate, but I would much rather focus on the environmental situation in the region. In short, as Percy Hintzen put it in the documentary: “Guyana is solving Exxon’s problems, but Exxon is not solving Guyana’s problems.”

Guyana is a member of the Caribbean community. In the very likely scenario that there is an oil spill, the country – thanks to the contracts with Exxon – is responsible for the cleanup. This would be a disaster not only for the country itself and its wealth of endangered marine species, but for its neighbors and its relationships with them. The Caribbean is highly dependent on fishing and tourism, and it does not take much to imagine what will happen in the case of a spill. All of this, keep in mind, with a company that has had major spills in its past, and using dangerous, ultra-deep drilling techniques on this project. There is also the very real issue of sea-level rise, which will certainly have a huge effect on Guyana and its neighbors.

Almost a quarter of the Guyanese coast is protected by seawalls, as most of the countries population and infrastructure lies near or even below sea level. The World Bank itself has even listed the country as being one of the most at-risk countries in regards to sea level rise. Photo by Tom Vierus / Urgewald.

MB: What about on land?

STM: Looking on land, Guyana lies at the heart of an ecological region that it shares with its neighbors called the Guiana Shield. This area contains one of the last intact rainforests on the planet, the country is over 80% forested. As our collaborator Luke Johnson says in the film, last year the country was voted the number one ecotourism destination in the world, the country is a carbon sink, and it provides some of the last pristine habitat to many keystone biodiversity species.

MB: How does this project stack up to other things you’ve worked on in your career?

STM: Having traveled to over twenty countries as an environmental filmmaker, I can say that this oil discovery puts Guyana on a path that will likely put all of that natural wealth at risk. In a lot of other countries around the world the kind of transformation that the Guyanese economy is currently undertaking has led to a totally different relationship with the natural world: more mining, more logging, more roads, more consumption. As our expert Percy Hintzen points out in the film, this pattern of intensification of extraction is something that was long fueled by colonization, but countries like Guyana never really profited from it.

And now, we continue to see this pattern around the planet in basically every country that has followed the path that Guyana is beginning to walk down. The World Bank makes the argument that Guyana can spend some of the profits from oil to protect this natural wealth, but it seems rather cynical to encourage a nation to destroy its environment in order to generate funds to protect it? It should also be noted that the World Bank itself has warned that Guyana is one of the countries that will be most affected by global sea-level rise.

Conservationist and local tour guide Luke Johnson. Photo by Tom Vierus / Urgewald.

MB: Guyana has managed to do well in some aspects with managing their forestry concessions. Do you see any aspects of that more holistic approach in the oil arena?

STM: It doesn’t make it into the film, but in his interview our expert Patrick Chesney said that almost all of the ideas and policies surrounding oil exploration and extraction have been flown in from the outside. You only need to look at the contract the government signed with Exxon to see proof of this. The contract was written in such a way that Guyana will see little revenue until Exxon has covered the cost of all its wells and the company is barely paying any taxes on the oil. Then just looking at the practical elements of the project: Why are so many of the contractors working on the project not from Guyana? Who is paying their salaries and why is that money not staying in the country?

MB: Why is oil still being exploited on such a massive scale at this point in history, given the already existing massive environmental issues globally?

STM: Industry experts point to Guyana’s oil as a classic smash and grab approach to resource extraction: companies will come, get what they can for as cheap as they can, and get out of Dodge. All of this simply points to how little everyday Guyanese people have been able to shape the approach being taken with oil development in their country.

Contrast that to Guyana’s approach to its forests. The premise of that work, simply by virtue of what it is trying to accomplish, is based on building and maintaining natural resources over generations. In this approach one really sees the value of local expertise, Guyanese-led research, and democratic decision-making processes. This is a path that by its nature employs more Guyanese people and does so in kinds of work that are more deeply connected to the health of the environment.

But coming back to the bank, despite Guyana’s own plans to develop along a green path, the bank has never invested in renewable energy in the country. So, no, I don’t see anything even close to the holistic approaches embodied in Guyana’s approach to its forests anywhere in its approach to oil and gas development.

MB: Who are the individual actors who have proven to be most significant in this story?

STM: I think the most important person in this story is the environmental lawyer Melinda Janki. Melinda is an incredibly hard-working and powerful advocate for the people of Guyana and for our planet. Her organization Fair Deal for Guyana – Fair Deal for the Planet is working very hard in the Guyanese courts to preserve and utilize the environmental protections that the oil and gas industry’s lawyers have not yet been able to tear up. The work of those industry lawyers in undoing Guyanese environmental protections was, by the way, paid for by the World Bank.

Other important voices in the film are conversationalists Luke Johnson and Annette Arjoon-Martins. We also had great expert interviews with Patrick Chesney from the Guiana Shield Facility, Associate Professor from University of California, Merced Tracey Osborne, and professor Percy Hintzen from Florida International University, who provided us with a lot of context in the film. We also talked to the former auditor general of Guyana, Anand Goolsarran, who gave very important insights into the country’s contract with ExxonMobil and its impacts on the planet.

International environmental lawyer Melinda Janki at work in her office in Georgetown. Photo by Tom Vierus / Urgewald.

MB: What are you seeing from outside actors including foreign governments?

STM: I think there is an important point about how decisions about projects are voted on by other nation states. The World Bank functions like a bank, but the decisions as to which countries get money for what purposes are basically global political decisions when it comes down to it, but ones that are very much focused around U.S. foreign policy. The president of the bank is appointed by the president of the United States and the bank strongly advocates for American interests in the world, the U.S. being the biggest funder of the bank.

Each member state does have a vote on projects, but as you can imagine, voting against the interests of other member nations has political ramifications, so it is actually very hard for countries to vote against projects. In most cases, even if a representative strongly opposes a project they will often simply abstain from voting.

This is something about the bank that almost nobody knows and is very problematic as it pertains to oil and gas development. For as long as it is in the interest of wealthy countries with oil companies to support those countries in their efforts, and for as long as the World Bank is willing to fund this sector of the economy, countries will put forth projects that further damage our climate. And other countries will basically be forced to go along with it.

MB: How are power dynamics an issue here?

STM: There is a deep imbalance in how power flows through the bank. A perfect example of this is how pressure to support oil and gas projects has even come from U.S. Senators in recent years, who are looking to bolster the interests of companies from their home states. On the flip side, there is little evidence that the entire populations of countries where such projects will be implemented have even close to as much of a say as those senators in the matter.

Looking beyond the bank, it is also interesting to watch how the Trump administration is inserting itself into this situation. Just recently, Mike Pompeo made history as the first sitting U.S. Secretary of State to visit Guyana and its neighbor Suriname, saying how important it was to have the US private sector involved in Guyana’s oil extraction. Many administration officials including Assistant Secretary to the Bureau of Energy Resources, Francis R. Fannon have been major advocates of further U.S. involvement in the region. This very resource-based interest by the U.S. government has a long, dark history in many countries in South and Central America; one that is beginning to repeat, this time in Guyana.

MB: Is there anything concerning about the implications of this oil?

STM: Everything about the implications of this oil is concerning. Melinda Janki sums it up by stating that oil is too expensive for Guyana and that the country is already paying the price in terms of its rule of law and democracy being undermined. She also stressed that what is at stake will not just affect the country itself, but the entire region and the global climate. Melinda Janki says the massive amounts of oil and gas big oil hopes to be able to drill off the coast of Guyana would destroy global efforts to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

Janki also explains that Guyana has the longest mud-coastline in the world, which makes up an immensely special ecosystem and habitat for species local scientists have just begun to understand. An oil spill could destroy all of that. As the Guyanese conservationist Annette Arjoon-Martins points out in the film, Guyana is not prepared for an oil spill. In fact, none of us are.

A flock of birds fly along the Guyanese coast. Traditionally the mud coast was lined with mangrove forests. These ecosystems have already been devastated by human activity, but could be destroyed in the case of an oil spill. Photo by Tom Vierus / Urgewald.

MB: As a filmmaker, how did your background play into this project?

STM: I grew up in the U.S., in Montana. It is a place known for its incredible natural beauty, but what most people don’t know is that it was also left devastated by the extractive industry just a few decades ago. From its early history into the post-war era it was known for its huge reserves of copper, gold and silver; but now, half a century after the mining companies moved out, it still houses some of the largest remediation sites on the planet. I grew up in the midst of the economic hardship and environmental cleanup that followed this massive extraction, and it plays large in my mind when I watch as others navigate the very complex questions that resources pose.

In this case, Guyana is not being helped by global institutions like the World Bank and its international partners like the United States in being pressured to bet on oil. And with the oil industry in long-term decline it is an ill-advised bet. As our expert Kathy Hipple says in the film, the profitability of the oil and gas sector has been in decline for years and investment in it, by any country, is to throw away money, time and effort better spent on the transition to renewable energy.

But even looking at the more concrete effects: the very one-sided contract, the lack of transparency by the government and the project’s investors, the detrimental environmental effects, and the terrible effects on Guyana’s democratic processes, all of this is very, very concerning.

MB: Are extractive projects just outdated?

STM: The problem is really deep, it lies in the extractive nature of our very economic system. We need more than just a foundational structure for our transfer of goods, also defines the way that we place value on the planet and each other. It determines our willingness to place natural systems in danger for our own short-term economic growth, and our willingness to subjugate our democratic and humanitarian values in exchange for personal wealth.

Seen that way, it seems clear that the planet is calling on us to find a better path; to choose regeneration over extraction. And we hope those who watch the film will come to agree.

Learn more about Urgewald and watch the full 47-minute documentary here.

Banner image: Guyana lies at the heart of the Guiana Shield, one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Tom Vierus / Urgewald.