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“The Quest to Defuse Guyana’s Carbon Bomb”: Meet the Environmental Lawyer Taking On ExxonMobil

StoryDecember 23, 2022
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Image Credit: Antonia Juhasz

We speak with Guyanese environmental lawyer Melinda Janki about how she’s taking on the oil giant ExxonMobil to stop the company from developing an offshore oil field that would turn Guyana into a “carbon bomb.” Guyana is currently a carbon sink, but Exxon plans to produce more than 1 million barrels of oil a day, which could transform the South American country into one of the world’s top oil producers by 2030. Janki is suing the Guyanese government and Exxon under the constitution’s guarantee of a healthy environment to both current and future citizens. Her legal battle is profiled in a new article in Wired, “The Quest to Defuse Guyana’s Carbon Bomb,” written by independent journalist Antonia Juhasz, who also joins us.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we end today’s show looking at “The Quest to Defuse Guyana’s Carbon Bomb.” That’s the title of a new piece in Wired magazine by investigative journalist Antonia Juhasz which details an effort to block ExxonMobil from drilling off the shore of Guyana, where more than 11 billion barrels of oil have been discovered.

Guyana is a coastal nation on the north Atlantic coast of South America. It shares a border with Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname. Critics of the plan say the drilling could be a disaster for Guyana and the world as the climate emergency intensifies. Today, Guyana is considered to be a carbon sink, thanks to its dense rainforests and low emissions. But if Exxon has its way, Guyana could soon become what’s known as a “carbon bomb.”

We’re joined by two guests. Melinda Janki is a Guyanese environmental lawyer based in Georgetown, Guyana, who helped draft many of Guyana’s national environmental laws, including Guyana’s Environmental Protection Act. She filed a landmark lawsuit against Exxon and the Guyanese government in May 2021 to stop the offshore oil drilling. We’re also joined by longtime, award-winning investigative journalist Antonia Juhasz, author of the cover story of Wired, “The Quest to Defuse Guyana’s Carbon Bomb.”

Antonia, talk about why you felt this was so important to bring to the world.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Yeah, thank you, Amy. And thanks so much for having me. And good morning to Melinda Janki in Georgetown.

This is just such a critically important case. It’s a landmark lawsuit that Melinda has launched against Exxon’s operations in Guyana. And these are brand-new operations — Exxon started producing in 2019 — making Guyana one of the few countries in the world — when the rest of the world or much of the world is trying to get off of fossil fuels, Guyana is one of the few countries that’s entering anew into the fossil fuel era, and in a really big way, if Exxon has any say in it. Exxon wants to produce, by 2030, 1 million barrels of oil a day offshore Guyana, and that would make Guyana its single-largest source of daily oil production anywhere in the world. 2030 is also the year that much of coastal Guyana, Georgetown, where Melinda is joining us from, and where — the coastal area, where 90% of the population lives, is expected to be underwater because of the unchecked advance of the climate crisis.

And what Melinda has done — and she, of course, will talk about it — is launch a historic climate and human rights lawsuit to stop those operations, hopefully to try and stop them before they advance too far and, as you say, become one of the world’s leading potential carbon bombs, operations that are capable of releasing so many emissions that they are disastrous, over a gigaton emissions, to the global climate and to Guyana itself.

And these operations are also critically important to Exxon. It’s hard to overstate how important they are to Exxon, which is also why this lawsuit is so important to be coming from the Global South. Seventy percent of climate lawsuits are from the United States. Ninety percent are from the Global North. So, to have a country that’s experiencing some of the worst impacts of climate change, about to become one of the largest energy producers, also launch this historic lawsuit that could become a precedent to try and stop those operations is just so important, that I wanted to help bring this story to a broader audience.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to Melinda Janki, the Guyanese international environmental lawyer based in Georgetown, Guyana. Now, you have drafted many of Guyana’s national environmental laws, including Guyana’s Environmental Protection Act of 1996. Now you are suing Guyana and ExxonMobil. Talk about why you launched this suit last year, what it means currently that Guyana is a carbon sink, and what this would do to your country.

MELINDA JANKI: Amy, thank you very much. It’s an honor to be on your program. And warm greetings to you and your audience around the world.

This lawsuit was launched last year, essentially, to challenge the fossil fuel buildout offshore Guyana. And we argue that it is unconstitutional because it violates the constitutional right to a healthy environment. And this is actually a very different sort of case, because we’re treating climate change as the symptom. We’re going right to the heart of the problem. And we’re saying that fossil fuels produce greenhouse gas, and greenhouse gas pollution is the problem that is causing climate change. Rising sea levels, which Antonia mentioned, will have a devastating impact on Georgetown, the capital city. And fossil fuel — the greenhouse gas pollution from fossil fuels is also making the ocean more acid. As you mentioned, we’re a coastal nation. And we’re already seeing an impact. We once had a very viable shrimp industry. Now when you go into the shops, you’re buying shrimp that’s coming from places like Vietnam. We argue that what’s happening here is destroying the right to a healthy environment.

AMY GOODMAN: In the Environmental Protection Act that you pushed to establish, the concept of natural capital, what does that mean, Melinda?

MELINDA JANKI: It’s very simple. Traditionally, economists treat the natural world as if it has no value. Say, for example, a standing forest is considered to be worthless. But if you cut it down and turn it into logs, then economists will tell you that now you have something that has value. Natural capital says the exact opposite. It says that the forest has a value in itself. And, of course, this makes sense, because we can’t live without the natural world.

And I lobbied very hard some time ago for a change to the Constitution, which is in there in Article 36, which actually states that preserving clean air, fertile soils, pure water and the rich diversity of plants and animals and ecosystems, that’s what the well-being of the nation depends on. And that is critical, because at the end of the day we’re not going to eat oil, we’re not going to drink oil. Our survival as people — in fact, our survival as a species — depends on the natural world. And that is one of the reasons that it has to be taken into account and it has to have a value, as a pushback against this crazy mentality that the natural world has no value until you convert it to numbers in a spreadsheet.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that guarantee, the right to a healthy environment for present and future generations, you have pushed for in the Constitution. It’s in the Constitution. It’s enshrined there. So, what has been Guyana’s response to the lawsuit, not to mention ExxonMobil? You have sued them both.

MELINDA JANKI: So, the government’s response has been to say, roughly, that the Constitution does provide for sustainable development, and Guyana has a right to develop. And they have pointed out that Guyana has been a minuscule, very tiny contributor to climate change.

The case was originally filed against the attorney general, who is the representative of the state because what we’re saying is that the state is violating the right to a healthy environment. That is the basis of the case.

The judge added ExxonMobil to the case. And Exxon’s approach is to say that the main testimony should be struck out, because in that testimony by Dr. Troy Thomas, one of the litigants, he sets out the impacts of greenhouse gas pollution on the environment — so, climate change, rising sea level, ocean acidification, a warmer ocean, etc., all of these things which I’m sure that the audience is extremely familiar with. ExxonMobil says that these things are not facts, but that they are matters of scientific opinion, and that since Dr. Thomas is not a scientific expert, he cannot give — he cannot make those statements. And they have applied to strike out his testimony. We have responded by filing an affidavit saying that the impacts of fossil fuels, the impact of greenhouse gas pollution, is so well-known that it is no longer capable of being disputed.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the World Bank, the involvement of the World Bank in Guyana and the production of fossil fuels, Melinda Janki?

MELINDA JANKI: Yes. The World Bank has been very strongly in favor of Guyana converting to producing fossil fuels. The World Bank, in fact, in the 1980s, was behind the legislation that established a petroleum — they established the petroleum legislation. The World Bank has lent money to Guyana to get ready for fossil fuel production. The grant, the arrangement between the World Bank and Guyana, was illegal, because it was made with someone who was not the finance minister at the time, because the government had lost a no-confidence motion, so there were no ministers. Nevertheless, the World Bank went ahead and signed the agreement and advanced the money.

The World Bank has — the World Bank project, with the full knowledge of the World Bank, hired lawyers who represent ExxonMobil to alter Guyana’s laws, including the World Bank wanted to dismantle the Environmental Protection Act. They said that it was out of date. Now, this is legislation which requires — requires — companies to state the impact of their actions on all aspects of the environment, including the climate, the atmosphere and the ocean. How on Earth can the World Bank argue with any credibility that this is out of date? And it was done at a time when we know that the fossil fuel industry was lying about the impacts on climate change. These provisions were put into the legislation in 1996. And, yes, they were drafted by me. The result of that is that all companies in Guyana, all oil companies in particular, and ExxonMobil, they have to say what is the impact of their Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3 emissions. And that, perhaps, is what the World Bank is upset about.

The World Bank is also encouraging Guyana to do gas and to take gas and convert Guyana to gas instead of renewable energy. We have a serious problem at the moment, because ExxonMobil is flaring billions of cubic feet of gas offshore Guyana. They have said it is because they are using faulty equipment. The Guyana government is now proposing to take that gas and use it for energy. And because this is not financially viable, the Guyana government is hoping that the U.S. EXIM Bank will lend the money to enable them to do it. And all of this is being done, of course, with the encouragement of the World Bank and is completely contrary to the World Bank’s own policies. It is contrary to the Paris Agreement, which says that financing flows should now be aligned with the Paris Agreement and keeping the temperature below 1.5. And we would argue that it is also incompatible with national law for the Guyana government to do this on many different grounds, not simply the violation of the right to a healthy environment.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Antonia Juhasz: Could Guyana cope with a massive oil spill like the one triggered by the BP Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico? You wrote the book Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill. And it’s just so interesting to be talking to you both about this now as the people of the United States, to say the least, are experiencing what is being called a climate bomb, a once-in-a-generation cold, level of cold and snow that has not been experienced here in a long time. Antonia?

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Yeah, well, while Melinda wrote incredibly good environmental provisions into Guyana’s laws and Constitution, Guyana absolutely does not have anything close to the capacity to regulate and oversee deepwater, highly technologically complex offshore drilling. The United States didn’t have the capacity to do it. We had the worst offshore drilling oil spill in history in our waters. Guyana definitely doesn’t have the capacity to do with it. So, we will certainly hope and pray that nothing of that scale happens. But if it does, the devastation would be extreme, just as it was in the U.S. Gulf Coast.

But adding to what Melinda said, you know, one of the many important things that Melinda did was put into place the right to a healthy environment, guaranteed for current and future generations. The United Nations —

AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds, Antonia.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: — followed suit. And now the world has the opportunity to implement that right. And what Exxon really doesn’t want is for us to regulate and hold them to account for all of their emissions, from the production to consumption of emissions. And that’s their biggest fear with this case, is that that’s what they’re going to be held to. And we can all support Melinda in hoping that that outcome comes to pass.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both so much for being with us. And, of course, we’ll continue to follow this story. Investigative journalist Antonia Juhasz, we’ll link to your new Wired article, “The Quest to Defuse Guyana’s Carbon Bomb.” And Melinda Janki, Guyanese environmental lawyer who has sued Exxon and Guyana. I’m Amy Goodman.

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