Daly Bread: Accountability without insult—can minister Browne be the ‘new normal’

The reported threat posed to Trinidad and Tobago by the floating storage offshore vessel, the Nabarima, moored in nearby Venezuelan waters has been of concern for nearly two months.

The Nabarima contains over one million barrels of crude oil, in storage on it. The vessels’ condition was reported on internationally in Argus Media on 31 August 2020, described as ‘a listing oil tanker’ with a flooded engine room and nearby compartments threatening Venezuela and Trinidad.

Photo: The Nabarima, moored in nearby Venezuelan waters, contains over one million barrels of crude oil.
(via Vox)

Argus said: ‘The Venezuelan Ecology Society which is monitoring the situation warns that if the Nabarima sinks it could trigger the worst marine environmental disaster in the country’s history and potentially affect fisheries and coastlines in Trinidad and Tobago’.

The media has displayed photographs that purport to show the vessel significantly listing but our Government disputes that it was. The government’s position at the beginning of September 2020, based on information received without an inspection—according to the Minister of Energy, Senator Franklin Khan—was that the vessel ‘was currently upright and in a stable condition’.

What if the minister’s information was wrong and Nabarima were to sink?  Knowing the true extent of the risk of a massive oil spill is crucial to the existence of our coastlines and their communities.

I thought I was still dreaming when I woke up last Wednesday, and read an account by our Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Amery Browne, of what our government had been doing.

His account was coherent and insult-free—detailing that the vessel was the subject of seven diplomatic notes, culminating in Venezuela granting permission for us to send our own expert team to inspect the vessel.

Photo: Senator Amery Browne.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2020)

The team went on board the vessel the day before, on the Tuesday, and ‘conducted a series of assessments and observations on the vessel, as directed by our Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries, and presented a report to Minister Khan to be utilised to determine our next steps’.

There should be nothing remarkable about such a level of accountability, but it is the exception and not the rule in our governance practices.

However, what made me think I was dreaming was the following statement from Dr Browne: ‘the strong concern and interest of the people of Trinidad and Tobago to the Nabarima situation have helped to encourage the government to persist in its determined actions on this matter’.

These two ministers held a joint media briefing on Thursday last. The Minister of Energy again told us that we have nothing to fear from the Nabarima.

I was surprised again as I heard minister Browne acknowledge ‘pressing public attention and genuine concern’. He is apparently one of those, perhaps few, senior members of the Cabinet, who is sufficiently urbane and disciplined that he does not dismiss the concerns of citizens as ‘UNC-motivated’; nor does he label concerned citizens as unpatriotic. 

Photo: A dead bird on the shore at Otaheite after a Petrotrin oil spill in 2017.
(Copyright Shaun Rambaran)

What a welcome departure from the frequent hating on concerned citizens.

In the briefing, minister Khan disclosed the identities of the expert team members.  He confirmed earlier reports of the flooding of the engine room of the Nabarima and some listing of low degrees but accepted that the Venezuelans had acknowledged ‘two unwanted events’ and had corrected them. He said that our inspection team reported that the vessel ‘is upright and stable and there was no visible tilt and imminent risk of tilting or sinking’.

Let’s hope that the team did not get chain up given the limited, visual nature of the inspection, plenty mamaguy from the Venezuelan top brass and its curious repetition of the minister’s initial phrases.

The government referred to arrangements to offload the oil on to other vessels. Argus had also reported these arrangements but as pending negotiations with the US for an environment exception from sanctions.

There are acknowledged risks in the lengthy transfer process proposed but it seems that we will be granted another inspection in a month’s time.

Photo: Senator Amery Browne.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also been in communication with the US Ambassador, apparently more successfully than the last fiasco this government had with the US Ambassador, accompanied by the government’s ill-will to the media for exposing it.

Will minister Browne lead a return to civility in the conduct of public life?

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About Martin Daly

Martin G Daly SC is a prominent attorney-at-law. He is a former Independent Senator and past president of the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago. He is chairman of the Pat Bishop Foundation and a steelpan music enthusiast.

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One comment

  1. Dr.Browne (and Penny Beckles) bring a degree of civility and class to the government,the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the PNM.That said,I do not trust the assessment by the ‘experts’ given the limited scope of their observations.

    If officials were aware of the angst being experienced by the population,why were no pressers done to give updates on approaches?

    Is it coincidental that Gary Aboud’s aggressive activism,the one media briefing,visit by an inspection team,Power 102’s interview with former ambassador Rodney Charles and Fitzgerald Hinds’ instant response all took place at the same time?
    So we can reinspect in a month’s time,let us all hope that it will not be too late and the catastrophe for our peoples is averted.

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