Remarks by Seth Wikas, Guyana Desk Officer: Resiliency and Capacity Initiatives in the Caribbean

Seth Wikas, Guyana Desk Officer
U.S. Department of State
Washington D.C.
Remarks at Oil and Gas Conference – Enhancing Offshore E&P Regional Capacity: Operational and Environmental Safeguards
September 16, 2019
Georgetown, Guyana

Resiliency and Capacity Initiatives in the Caribbean

Good morning, my name is Seth Wikas and I am the Guyana Desk Officer at the U.S. Department of State. In that role from Washington, I oversee much of our government-to-government interaction with the Co-Operative Republic of Guyana.

I would like to thank both Brian and Lee for inviting me to speak at this conference. For me this began at a Washington, DC coffee shop in the spring, following a positive referral from my US Coast Guard colleagues. Brian and Lee told me about their previous work on oil spill response, and that they were planning a new conference with a Guyana focus.

When they asked me to speak, I gave them a quizzical look as I am not an expert in this field. Perhaps a novice at best. As the agenda for this conference came together, I noted that I would likely be one of the few non-technical speakers at the podium.

My role this morning, however, is to take a step back and frame oil spill response within the context of the US government’s broader engagement with the Caribbean.

I am a foreign policy practitioner and oil spill response is only one part of my larger portfolio, which covers the Southern Caribbean and energy issues writ large. But the importance of coordination and having protocols in place to respond to these types of disasters was made clear to me last week.

I was assisting our embassy in The Bahamas respond to the damage of Hurricane Dorian, which has affected tens of thousands of people. It destroyed homes, buildings, critical infrastructure, transportation networks and water systems. Thousands have evacuated; many don’t know when they will return to Abaco or Grand Bahama island. Thankfully, the international community, and the United States in particular, has played a crucial role in helping the people affected by this tragedy, respond to critical needs, and commence rebuilding efforts.

The 180 mile per hour winds not only produced widespread disaster and suffering. The Category 5 winds of the strongest storm The Bahamas has ever seen blew the roofs off of oil storage tanks at an Equinor facility located on Grand Bahama, subsequently causing a discharge of oil.

The response of the company was swift, and company representatives kept the Department of State apprised of response and clean-up efforts. The company was in contact with Bahamian officials from the beginning and showed them the spill site once it could be approached.

The Department of State communicated closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), which offered tools ranging from imagery to scientific support for pollution response, if support was requested. The U.S. Coast Guard was also activated in case the spill moved out to sea.

The spill impacts appear principally inland, and response efforts continue. But the mobilization reflected the importance of U.S. government interagency cooperation, and partnership between the private and public sectors.

This interagency cooperation, foreign government engagement, public-private partnership, and joint disaster response all neatly fit under the U.S. government’s broader engagement strategy for the Caribbean. In fact, it has been mandated by the U.S. Congress.

The United States-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act of 2016 declared it will be U.S. policy to increase engagement with the governments of the Caribbean region, including the private sector, and with civil society in both the United States and the Caribbean.

The strategy mandated six priority engagement areas, or pillars, for the U.S. government, with the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, in the lead. These pillars are security, diplomacy, prosperity, energy, education, and health.

On security, we work with our Caribbean partners to ensure ISIS is denied a foothold in the region, dismantle illicit trafficking networks, enhance maritime security, confront violent and organized crime, and increase the sharing of threat information among countries.

On diplomacy, we raise the political level of our dialogue with Caribbean nations and leaders, including CARICOM.

We increase our own and our neighbors’ prosperity by promoting sustainable growth, open markets for U.S. exports, and private sector-led investment and development.

We prioritize exports of U.S. energy and the use of U.S. renewable energy technologies.

In the education sphere, we focus our resources on exchanges and programs for students, scholars, teachers, and other professionals that provide mutual benefits to U.S. and Caribbean communities and promote economic development and entrepreneurship.

Also included in the education sphere is sharing of capacity building activities, including increasing familiarization with the building of national response frameworks within Caribbean nations, in order to mitigate impacts to natural and man-made disasters.

In the area of health, we partner with countries in the region in the fight against infectious diseases, like HIV/AIDS and Zika, recognizing deadly pathogens are threats that know no borders.

These six areas have guided our engagement with the Caribbean over the last three years, and will continue to do so in the years to come. In July of this year, two months ago, we submitted our report to Congress outlining our activities and engagement with the Caribbean, pillar by pillar.

It would take longer than I have at this podium to review all of our achievements, but our U.S.-Caribbean 2020 Report to Congress, which can be found online, is vast in its scope. In addition to the programmatic highlights, it includes an annex which lists all of our engagements since the law was passed. I would point anyone who wants to know what the United States has been doing in the Caribbean to this document.

I would, however, like to highlight one area of engagement that was not in the original six pillars set out by Congress, but one we have incorporated after the fact. At the UN General Assembly last September, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan met with Caribbean Foreign Ministers in order to outline our progress on the six pillars, and elicit their thoughts and comments. What became clear was that disaster resilience needed to be a key part of continuing engagement. Hurricanes, sea level change, flooding, earthquakes, and other threats can endanger lives, destroy property, and undermine economic and political advances in the areas highlighted in the pillars of the U.S. Caribbean-2020 Strategy.

Over the course of the past year we have worked hard to address this need. Given the topic of this conference where we all here today, I would like to go more into detail about it. Its breadth and depth show how engaged the U.S. government is on this issue.

In recognition of our shared interests in building better resilience and response capacity, on April 12, 2019 the U.S. invited the nations of the Caribbean to join in launching the U.S.-Caribbean Resilience Partnership. Deputy Secretary Sullivan opened the meeting, which was held at U.S. Southern Command in Miami. The partnership brought together ten U.S. government agencies and eighteen Caribbean countries.

The U.S. delegation was made up of senior representatives from: the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) within USAID; the Departments of State, Transportation, Defense, Energy, Homeland Security, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Commerce, including NOAA, and the Department of Transportation, including the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The Resilience Partnership formalizes an enduring exchange of expertise and experience in developing resilience to natural disasters and responding in their aftermath. The Department of State has begun dialogues to incorporate efforts outside of the government sector in the partnership, including with academics at Northeastern and Columbia Universities, and Adtalem Global Education to increase the region’s resilience and with the U.S. insurance industry to address the issue of non- and under- insurance throughout the Caribbean.
USAID and NOAA, in partnership with the Meteorological Services of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, is working to build local capacity and develop tools and products for forecasting storm surges. USAID will roll out storm-surge mapping to additional countries in the Caribbean, to enable governments to assess and mitigate flooding risks from hurricanes and tsunamis.

The U.S.-Caribbean 2020 Strategy and U.S.-Caribbean Resilience Partnership are key frameworks for our Caribbean engagement. They directly connect with oil spill response activities that the U.S. government has used for decades.

Unfortunately my colleagues from the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA are unable to attend today, but I can briefly review some of the capabilities that they have for oil spill response. I believe many in this room are likely familiar with them, but they bear highlighting here, as further evidence of our commitment to Caribbean security and the range of capabilities we have to offer, when requested by partner nations:

The U.S. Coast Guard’s Office of Marine Environmental Response Policy has a mandate to provide guidance, policy, and tools in order to plan and prepare operations to mitigate the threat and consequences of oil discharges into United States waters. It has used the expertise it has amassed in responding to U.S. oil spills to assist international partners in their development and implementation of spill response tactics and frameworks.

NOAA’s Satellite Analysis Branch operationally produces satellite-derived maps that depict oil slick locations, ranges and thickness, in order assist emergency managers coordinating response efforts. And NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) provides support to oil and chemical spill preparedness and response in coastal areas. It flies missions to identify and document spill sources and spread; uses computer models to predict spill fate and transport; maps the sensitivity of shorelines, biology, and socioeconomic resources to oil, and develops publications, models, and tools that assist in understanding impacts and making tradeoff decisions. OR&R also collects information to understand natural resource impacts from spills in affected areas, works to assess and restore resources injured by spills, and leads the U.S. marine debris program. As I mentioned earlier, NOAA offered the Bahamians these capabilities following the oil spill on Grand Bahama, and remains highly engaged and prepared to deploy resources as necessary.

And this outline of U.S. government commitment and capabilities writ large brings me to Guyana.

Over the past year, the Department of State and U.S. Coast Guard have been working with Guyana’s Department of Energy and its Civil Defence Commission to assist with the development of its National Oil Spill Contingency plan. With Guyana’s oil resources coming online imminently, we commend the Guyanese government in its foresight to develop this plan, and look forward to working with them on this important document.

The assistance on the National Oil Spill Contingency plan follows years of engagement the Department of State has had with Guyana under the Energy Governance and Capacity Initiative, or EGCI.

EGCI is a Department of State–led effort that provides U.S interagency and expert independent advisory services in countries across the globe, to build capacity related to hydrocarbon and mineral sector’s oversight and governance. Countries receiving EGCI assistance have world-class hydrocarbon and mineral resources. These countries have the potential to receive sizable financial windfalls from the development and export of these resources.

From 2010-2018, EGCI supported Guyana’s government in its efforts to manage its upstream oil and gas sector effectively and responsibly. EGCI engagement increased in 2015, when ExxonMobil made its first major offshore oil discovery, radically reshaping the country’s energy landscape and long-term economic prospects. The Department of State recognized the need for the necessary regulatory, legal, and policy structures to ensure sound governance and sustainability in this emerging upstream sector.

Over the course of the programming period, EGCI’s implementing partners at the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Treasury conducted workshops and provided technical support. They introduced cutting-edge practices in the regulation and management of deep water oil exploration and production. EGCI provided financial advisory support to help prepare for managing anticipated oil sector revenues, and engaged on oil spill preparedness and response planning with the U.S. Coast Guard. With EGCI assistance, Guyana was also able to initiate the process to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, EITI, to ensure the public knows where oil revenues are going.

Although EGCI wound down its programming in Guyana last year after nearly a decade of assistance and engagement, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Technical Assistance continues to build the capacity of the Guyana Revenue Authority. It focuses on training auditors in its large taxpayer division, so that they are able to confidently manage the windfalls which are to be expected over the coming years.

We hope that Guyana will rely on this long period of sustained engagement and assistance, which produced expert reports on best-practices in oil sector management. We hope the government references these reports and recommendations as it makes critical decisions in the months and years ahead.

Finally, recognizing that this is an apolitical conference but that I am a U.S. government representative, I want to thank the government of the Co-Operative Republic of Guyana for its partnership with the United States. We are appreciative of the role it plays as an active member of the Lima Group, helping us respond to the humanitarian and political crisis in Venezuela; its strong voice in the Organization for American States; and as an established democracy with close and historical ties to the United States, including a large diaspora population.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak and I look forward to learning more over the course of the next two days.