The Undeniable Case for a COI into the Tumbi Landslide & ExxonMobil’s Quarry

The International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) last week released a report it drafted appertaining to January’s Tumbi Landslide in the Southern Highlands.

The Tumbi Landslide is one of PNG’s worst ever landslide disasters and is believed to have claimed up to 60 lives.

The short but succinct report highlights disturbing concerns ISCI considers to be important enough to warrant a Commission of Inquiry into the landslide.

And I agree.

ISCI identifies four key areas needing to be investigated:

  1. The cause of the landslide;
  2. Government oversight of safety at the LNG project;
  3. The response of the National Disaster Centre to the landslide; and,
  4. Allegations of impropriety and collusion on the part of ExxonMobil via their subsidiary Esso Highlands Limited.

Commission of Inquiries vary in terms of objectives, but generally speaking, their roles are to collect information – coupled with expert opinion  – and resolve conflict with the underlying theme of restoring public confidence.

When an inquiry is launched to determine facts in retrospect – most often used for accidents or tragedies – it is widely viewed that the purpose or focus of a Commission should not be the determination of individual blame, but rather, the purpose or focus should be on what information is needed to educate the public and provide context to justify the impending recommendations.

And it is precisely this key issue – the wholesome collection and dissemination of information by an independent inquiry – which has clearly not occurred, and it is obvious that this has caused considerable hurt and resentment amongst our citizens in the communities affected.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Tumbi Landslide is a tragedy. The loss of up to 60 lives quantifies that.

However, it is important to make the point that this is not just a tragedy in the middle of New Guinea’s forests devoid of any human interaction.

No – this was a tragedy which happened within the vicinity of ExxonMobil’s operations; and within a stone’s throw from a quarry utilized for a period of two years by the PNG LNG project developer.

If there is a cause-effect relationship here, it has to be proven – but the association between ExxonMobil and the Tumbi Landslide is clear.

The possibility of human influence in causing the Tumbi Landslide and claiming up to 60 lives is the reason why this is a national tragedy warranting a Commission of Inquiry.

Detractors of ISCI’s report may point out that the National Disaster Centre (NDC) did investigate and release a report into the cause of the landslide which concluded that it was initiated by “continuous heavy rainfall”.

However, ISCI highlights the total absence of evidence provided in NDC’s report to substantiate that hypothesis.

It is a point that is impossible to argue against.

Furthermore, the recently concluded Commission of Inquiry into the capsizing and sinking of the MV Rabaul Queen has shown us clearly that state agencies responsible for regulating, managing and responding to operational sectoral issues – let alone extraordinary events – lack the capacity, expertise and courage to adequately fulfill their responsibilities.

The COI into MV Rabaul Queen was equally as scathing on Peter Sharp, the owner and operator of the ship, as it was on the National Maritime Safety Authority. Similar opinions formed by an inquiry into the NDC’s oversight of the Tumbi Landslide are probable.

ExxonMobil’s PNG LNG Project is a venture of national importance and its success will help provide the foundation of the future economic progress of our country.

The fear of possibly disrupting this Goliath, and consequently endangering the State’s own benefits, should not be a reason for Peter O’Neill and his government to shy away from investigating the Tumbi Landslide.

Instead, the importance of ExxonMobil’s project should indeed be the catalyst as to why an independent inquiry is necessary.

ExxonMobil and the PNG Government have entered into a long-term partnership. That partnership is based on trust and respect, and an understanding representing the views of ExxonMobil’s shareholders and strategic direction; alongside an understanding representing the views of the PNG Government in what it believes to be in the best interest of our people.

Government oversight of safety at the LNG Project, as identified by ISCI, is part and parcel of this partnership – and its effectiveness or lack of, needs to be revisited and reviewed. This is a point which has been emphasized by the Tumbi Landslide – despite who or what caused the landslide to happen.

An independent inquiry will help alleviate these concerns by defining matters that need to be addressed in detail to help mitigate any future events such as the landslide.

Additionally, the PNG LNG Project is not limited to the Tumbi area. It’s operational scope is extensive covering several PNG provinces and the communities it affects and interacts with are substantial.

ExxonMobil must appreciate that the influence of the state on landowner concerns is reactive by nature; and vice versa, the demands and expectations of landowners are manifested proactively.

It is because of these dynamics that I think ExxonMobil, through its subsidiary Esso Highlands, have done themselves a great disservice by not publicly supporting an independent inquiry into the Tumbi Landslide.

In any investment the size of ExxonMobil’s, the stakes are high, but the response pursued by the developer in this instance is reflective of the short-term thinking which plagues many of PNG’s foreign direct investment firms.

It goes to show that foreign firms still have a long way to go in understanding the Papua New Guinean psych; and it also demonstrates that the PNG Government still has a long way to go in developing the fortitude required of truly representing the interests of its citizens.

If Peter O’Neill is serious about having PNG’s interest at heart, then he understands that economic prosperity is important, but at no stage does it trump the lives of our people – no matter how large the stakes.

Tragedies like the Tumbi Landslide will happen again, and with the long-term commitment of ExxonMobil in PNG, it is possible that this developer will be associated with another future tragedy. If that occurs, then ExxonMobil and Peter O’Neill will have very little room to maneuver.

It’s a shame that this risk, although self-serving, has not even been identified and exploited to mitigate future damage.

The big losers out of all of this are the people of Tumbi in the Southern Highlands. It will not be lost on them that one of their own is Prime Minister, and that he has done very little to alleviate their pain and address their concerns.

The warning signs are out for Peter O’Neill and ExxonMobil.

~ by Tavurvur on September 24, 2012.

2 Responses to “The Undeniable Case for a COI into the Tumbi Landslide & ExxonMobil’s Quarry”

  1. Garamut thank you. What is the operator doing now? I heard on the grape vine, that Exxon will not take any insurance on this project or its contractors. This is why allot of the contractors with any repute, refused to come into PNG. The risks will fall back on the PNG Government, and ultimately on the PNG People. To be honest with you, Exxon will not take any responsibility, nor will any project issues or accidents of this magnitude ever reach ears that will be willing to listen and take effective preventative measures. Exxons web is too large, and the PNG Government and its people are well entwined into it.

    • ‘Pom Observer’ – Well, I think Esso Highlands is doing what any other business would do in the light of no Commission of Inquiry into the Tumbi Landslide – business as usual! They might tighten up on some operational procedures and tidy up some ‘loose fittings’ – but not a whole lot will change their operations. Why would they? There is no motivation to do so – all the more reason why a COI is needed to effect change – if Esso Highlands is found to be a partisan in the Tumbi Landslide. The ball is in Peter O’Neill’s court. Rgds, Tavurvur.

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