Palau, at risk from rising seas, aims to drill for oil

Source: alertnet // AlertNet correspondent

By Justin Nobel

Palau is a paradox: The low-lying Pacific island nation is threatened by climate change but may soon be drilling for oil.

Seismic tests in the 1970s indicated the presence of petroleum but exploratory wells were never dug. Now, President Johnson Toribiong is pushing for exploration, hopeful oil will bring cheaper fuel, revenue and jobs.

“Right now we are importing fossil fuel and that is very, very expensive,” Toribiong said in a telephone interview. “If we find oil we will use the proceeds to make Palau a green country.”

Many island nations around the world are looking for creative solutions to a pending crisis – predicted boosts in sea level, associated with climate change, that could ruin their drinking water supplies and crops, put them at greater risk from storms and tidal surges and, in some cases, submerge their homelands entirely.

Officials in Kiribati, a group of Pacific Ocean atolls, are trying to train their young people as nurses and other sought-after professions, in hope they – and eventually their families – can migrate legally to other countries, particularly Australia. The president of the Maldives is exploring buying land elsewhere – perhaps in India or Sri Lanka – to accommodate an eventual wholesale migration.

Other island officials think finding ways to improve the economic plight of their people will give them more resources and options to adapt to the coming changes.

Palau, however, may be the only imperiled island nation aiming to raise needed funds by pumping oil, which when burned boosts carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and drives climate change.

Toribiong, Palau’s president, established the world’s first shark sanctuary in Palau but also, prior to becoming president in 2009, did legal work for Palau Pacific Exploration (PPX), the Australia- and U.S.-based company now drilling for oil.

His position on drilling is in marked contrast to that of Tommy Remengesau Jr., Palau’s former president, who launched a project called the Micronesia Challenge to conserve 30 percent of Palau’s near-shore marine resources by 2020 and was cited by Time magazine in 2007 as a “Hero of the environment” for trumpeting the threat of climate change. Presently, he is a member of Palau’s Congress.

The island’s Congress has criticized the President’s contract with PPX, which gives the company until May 2011 to drill two exploratory wells and which Toribiong signed before giving Congress a chance to draft legislation guiding the development of petroleum resources.

Palau is now working with the World Bank to craft such legislation, which will ensure that as the country pursues an oil economy, social and environmental concerns are considered and a means for the fair distribution of profits is set up.


“In the end I hope we don’t have to drill,” said Noah Idechong, a renown marine conservationist who is now a leading member of Congress. “But I kind of sat down myself and realized that if you don’t get the legislation done right it will pop up in the future and we won’t be able to control it.”

Some analysts question why the World Bank is helping Palau develop fossil fuel resources when the island’s very existence is threatened by the burning of them.

“It is gut-wrenching and kind of sickening that Palau has been put in this position by those who have developed on the backs of the country’s future,” said Janet Redman, a sustainable energy researcher with the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank. “We are contributing to the process of an entire country disappearing.”

When asked why the World Bank was helping Palau pursue oil, Silvana Tordo, the lead energy economist in the World Bank’s oil, gas and mining policy division replied: “The choice of developing Palau’s resources is theirs, not ours. They will develop them with or without World Bank assistance. It is therefore important for the Bank to be part of the dialogue.”

Palau has 16 states and a complex system of governance that includes both state- and nationally-elected officials and traditional chiefs. Nearly two-thirds of the country’s 21,000 people, and most of its hotels and institutions are in the capital state of Koror.

The oil is located far from the capital, some 13 miles offshore from the remote state of Kayangel, a sandy reef-ringed isle of sparse tribal villages.

“Kayangel is not like Koror,” said Kayangel Governor Edwin Chokai. “They have a lot of jobs over there; over here we don’t have a lot of jobs, so over here we want to start the [oil] project so we can help the people of Kayangel.”

But even President Toribiong worries about what oil might bring.

“I am concerned. It is easy for people to be friendly in advance, but once you get the money greed sets in and shysters and phony consultants come,” Toribiong said. “Kayangel is a simple state, and these are not sophisticated people.”

Justin Nobel has reported on science and culture in Nunavik, Micronesia and northern California, and has on ongoing interest in climate issues in the South Pacific.