LNG - Blessing or a Curse for Papua New Guinea?

Back in April two articles were written on the ACT NOW! blog about a Pastoral Letter from the Catholic Bishops' Conference which asked the question: Will Papua New Guinea's liquified natural gas projects be a blessing or a curse?

Below (thanks to our friends at LNG Watch) is the full text of that letter. It should be essential reading for anyone concerned about the future of PNG and should, perhaps, have been tabled for discussion during this weeks PNG mining talk fest in Sydney...


LNG – Blessing or Curse?
A Question for the People of Papua New Guinea to Answer. 
Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands April 18, 2010

“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

 Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

About sixty years ago, once hidden fortunes of gold, silver, copper, nickel and oil were discovered in PNG.  Today, Bougainville, Pogera, Ok Tedi, Lihir, Kutubu and Ramu are familiar names because of their mineral riches and the projects they generated.  All of these ventures promised to bring development and prosperity to our country, especially in the provinces where they are located.  Landowners expected great benefits too.  But have these promises been kept?  Or are these resources and the amazing opportunities they present being squandered? 

No doubt, a great deal of positive economic growth has taken place in our nation in recent years.  At the same time it is probably true that only a few people have profited significantly, some becoming enormously rich.  Most ordinary people haven’t benefited much at all from the mineral wealth of our nation.  Wealth hasn’t trickled down throughout society and so urban settlements are growing and rural areas are becoming poorer.  Thus, for many people the most obvious outcome of so-called development has been more negative than positive, for example, widespread corruption, poverty and violence are on the rise.  The years of crisis on Bougainville, which resulted in many deaths and deep division in PNG society, still weighs heavily on the minds of people.  The environmental damage to the Fly River system by Ok Tedi Mining is another painful fact.  We also lament the ravaged forests of Madang, the Gulf and Western Provinces and the social turmoil at Pogera.  Kutubu oil continues to generate revenue but ordinary Southern Highlanders have seen very little gain from it over the years.  And today, the people of the Rai Coast fight to save the waters of Basumuk Bay from pollution and potential damage to the fisheries there.

Consider these questions  -  Why are health care and education services so poor in a country as rich as ours?  Why is infrastructure development, such as roads and bridges, rural electrification and communications lagging behind so badly?  What about governance, law and order, public service performance and political leadership?  Why haven’t these things gotten better over the years?  It is not an exaggeration to say the big development projects haven’t helped as much as they should have.  The country hasn’t fared well on the Human Development Index (HDI) during the past six years.  Our own government admits this in a study done by the National Strategic Plan Taskforce called PAPUA NEW GUINEA VISION 2050.  Successive governments have failed our people. 

The Catholic Bishops urge elected officials, who govern and make our laws, along with public servants who implement these decisions, to reflect on their role as leaders and servants of the people.  Wise leadership and dedicated service should be their goal.  Unfortunately, for some the attraction of power and money overwhelms their faith in God, love of neighbor, honesty at work and service to others.   Perhaps we all should pay more attention to the words of Jesus, “Will you gain anything if you win the whole world but lose your life?  Of course not” (Mt. 16:26)! Papua New Guinea is now poised to begin the largest economic venture of them all - the LNG (liquid natural gas) project. 

Will it be a blessing or a curse for PNG?

 According to analysts, the economic impact of the project will be positive.  The resource will produce great wealth, more than doubling the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the nation.  What is less certain is whether or not these riches will be managed wisely by national, provincial and local level governments as well as landowners, thus benefiting all of society.  Recently the Prime Minister said, “The challenge of my government is to convert the benefits of this Project to meaningful development that would improve the lives and living conditions of every Papua New Guinean.”  The VISION 2050 document referred to earlier states, “We simply do not have any more excuses.  We owe it to ourselves and the future generations to shift our attitudes and mind-set toward improving our living standards.  We are faced with an array of challenges, but we are also presented with great opportunities” (V. 2050 pg. 29 Summary).  Historically, PNG has a poor record of achievement in doing this so the challenge is indeed great. 

 Not much is known by the general public about what will be the environmental impact of the project.  PNG LNG infrastructure includes several very large processing facilities and more than 700km of pipeline from the Highlands to the coast and then subsea to a site near Port Moresby.   Environmental issues would seem to be potentially great in a project of this magnitude.  Most likely these will be portrayed as minimal by the developer ExxonMobil and co-venturers, Oil Search Ltd. a Papua New Guinean company, Santos, Nippon Oil and the PNG Government.  The PNG Government’s holdings are in Independent Public Business Corporation (IPBC), Mineral Resources Development Company (MRDC), which is the trustee and manager for landowner interests, and Eda Oil.  So the people of PNG are a significant stakeholder in the project.  Will we be as concerned about the environmental impact of the project as we should?

Environmental groups will be more critical of the project.  Our government and landowners need to be vigilant too. However, both have a substantial economic interest in the project and a poor record regarding environmental protection in the past.  So, environmental advocates, the media, interested NGOs and the churches must be on the alert, ready to speak out on behalf of the people and God’s creation.  Developers would be wise to be more informative and transparent with regard to environmental issues and answer critics with facts and good science, which can be analyzed and tested by impartial experts.

More problematic is the potential for a serious negative social impact from the project, both in the immediate area but also in other parts of the country.   Here the Catholic Bishops must express great concern.  We have already seen outbreaks of violence over land ownership issues and drunken chaos after large payments of cash were distributed to people unaccustomed to such unexpected wealth.  And going forward, some people will benefit greatly while others are left out.  This will likely cause already existing rivalries to flare up leading to increased violence and criminal activity.  Even though PNG LNG will generate enormous wealth, we see the possibility of a rise in poverty because money will not be managed wisely by government, by families and by individuals.  Let’s remember too that some people will be displaced as project infrastructure is developed.  Once their cash payments are gone, perhaps wasted, they will realize too late that their land and livelihood is lost forever. 

Traditional values and Christian faith are already under attack in PNG because of growing materialism and a hunger for money.  There is a rising attitude which says get what you can while you can. This is especially true where public service departments are already corrupt and dysfunctional, health care and education services poor and law and order marginal.   Many Southern Highlanders and Hela people believe the police and courts will serve the project developers but not be concerned about what goes on elsewhere.  They suspect health care and education will deteriorate even further as the project attracts professionals from these fields.  Furthermore, family life is likely to suffer in many places as men leave their families to find work with the LNG project, particularly if many spend their earnings on pleasure trips to the cities, on hire vehicles, alcohol and drugs, prostitutes and payment to buy a second wife.  HIV will spread as a result of bad and risky behavior.  We can expect these and other problems to intensify as part of the negative social impact from PNG LNG.

Papua New Guinea is a Christian country with hundreds of thousands of Catholics and other Christians working hard to live lives pleasing to God.  We Christians believe we are called share the Good News of Jesus Christ with others.  More than ever, now is the time to be strong and truly live our faith.  Christian churches must challenge their members to hold onto Christian principles and values, live the Commandments, put trust in God through prayer, stand together and support one another in the Christian communities.  Bishops and priests, religious and lay ministers, pastors and catechists, in fact all committed Christians, must step forward at this time.  We already know how important faith, prayer and solidarity are in times of crisis and danger, such as during great natural and manmade disasters.  We must realize they are also very important in times of great prosperity and rapid social change. 

+Francesco Panfilo SDB
President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of PNG SI