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Cities & Citizenship

The Crucible of Oil in Georgetown, Guyana

The commodities and industries that accelerate economic value—namely through the raw materials for industrialization, including energy—shape who globally holds power. This was true of timber, metals, and most notably in the last century, oil, which has led to invasions and coups, modern miracles and environmental destruction, and forged superpowers; who controls oil controls the world. These industries and patterns have all converged in the past decade in Guyana, a small, historically colonized and poor nation on the Northern coast of South America. 

In May 2015, fossil fuel mega-corporation ExxonMobil announced the discovery of “significant” offshore oil deposits in Guyana (McDonald and Üngör). The discovery was heralded as holding riches 12 times the nation’s entire economic output (Rosati and Carroll). For a country where over 40% of citizens have lived below the poverty line, rapidly facing dire consequences from climate collapse, with neighbors aggressive from deep-running political corruption from their own oil fortunes, Exxon’s discovery cast a glimmer of hope, if only it could be managed right. In the years since, oil extraction has taken off, catapulting the country into the world’s fastest-growing economy; in 2020 alone, GDP rose by 43% (Mentis and Moonsammy 2). In the skyline of capital city Georgetown, new construction renders the money pouring in off its shores starkly visible, alongside ever-rising ocean waves. The oil discovery has made Georgetown a crucible of post-colonial, twenty-first century rights under capital and time pressures: citizens’ rights to a healthy environment amid climate collapse, finding a thriving economy in the oil sector while avoiding the dreaded “resource curse,” ensuring democracy remains independent while deeply intertwined with corporate powers.


Georgetown’s battle with climate collapse is even more pressing than that of many cities in the U.S. and other Western economies. The population is crammed onto a narrow flood plane along the nation’s shoreline, in a capital city six feet below sea level, protected by a 280-mile sea wall and extensive canals and drainage. Maps reveal that the most populated areas of the capital are going underwater by 2030 (Climate Central). In 2005, the country lost 59% of annual GDP in a devastating tidal surge, followed by another natural disaster in 2021 with floods that affected the entire country (LCDS 12). Bharrat Jagdeo, the current Vice President and former President of Guyana, in 2022 said, “to manage Guyana is to manage water. If we wait on the world, we will be inundated by the sea” (Reel).

Waiting has not worked for other Global South countries. Little of the money for low-carbon development promised by wealthy countries going back to the 1990s has materialized. Jagdeo has taken the initiative to monetize natural wealth, and build power on the world stage. During his presidency, Jagdeo was awarded a UN trophy as a “Champion of the Earth” and one of Time’s “Heroes of the Environment” (Reel). This came from his plan to use Guyana’s extensive rainforest cover as a carbon offset for wealthy countries’ pollution, notably Norway, with whom he negotiated a $220M payment over 2009–15 to keep Amazon rainforest intact (LCDS 8). This deal was lauded as a “responsible” means of development for resource-rich, cash-poor countries, monetizing their natural resources for climate cleanup. $220M over six years, however, is not enough to run a country, even one with a population smaller than San Francisco’s, and remains a small fraction of the true worth of the natural resources.

Neighboring country Venezuela wants those resources, and has an ongoing territory dispute with Guyana (Guapizaca). Esequibo is a region comprising around two-thirds of the Guyana, known for its natural bounty, including the oil deposits. Since ExxonMobil’s oil discovery, long-expansionist Venezuela has resumed its interest in attempting to annex Esequibo after pulling out of a colonial-era agreement. Its government ran a questionable referendum last December to declare popular support, and has since advanced to actively running military drills along their border, including tanks and missile-equipped patrol boats (Taylor). Venezuela, itself holding the planet’s largest oil reserves (Bulkan 82) but a prime example of the resource curse, is the latest of the powers to call back only after Guyana won the (oil) lottery.

Guyana is no stranger to colonialism, specifically being put in a subservient role by Global North powers, or resource extraction. European explorers of scattered origins visited for centuries with various attempts to colonize. Following Dutch occupation, the British took possession of the nation in 1796, which lasted until 1966, with free elections only emerging in the 1990s (Bahadur). Georgetown itself is named for King George III, who never paid a visit. Exxon’s move in joins a long history of colonialism from other governments, and more recently, corporations. These colonial interests have a long history of extractive natural resource industry in Guyana, too, which brought the British in long ago. Primary exports gold, bauxite, and diamonds are mined in Guyana today predominantly by a small number of foreign-owned extraction companies (Nurse 92). “Gold production accounted for almost 10 percent of GDP and 56 percent of total exports in 2019” (qtd. Nurse 92). While the country has been able to maintain most of its rainforest cover amid the mining, the environmental damage has been nonetheless significant, and the riches have been carted off as quickly as the metals; most citizens have not seen the benefits, and are left with only the pollution.

The oil

And since 2019, the oil has begun to flow. After much of a century of interest in finding oil, the 1999 discovery deal, and the 2015 discovery, the first petroleum extraction deal was signed in 2016, with three parties: an Exxon subsidiary (with a 45% interest) and co-venturers Hess Corp (30% interest) and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (25% interest) (Bulkan). Their discoveries have been massive, covering more than eight billion recoverable barrels (McDonald and Üngör 3), and recent Exxon shareholder events have focused primarily on their Guyana activities as the next frontier of oil supply. Six floating production storage and offloading (FPSO) vessels are now parked off Guyana’s shores, with more on the way. Oil has become the top export, making up 39% of exports in 2020, a year of 85% growth in exports (McDonald and Üngör 3). “In 2022, Guyana exported $15.9B in Crude Petroleum, making it the 21st largest exporter of Crude Petroleum in the world,” with its primary destinations Panama, the Netherlands, the U.S., Italy, and Germany (“Crude Petroleum in Guyana”).

Who owns the oil? Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a treaty which the majority of the world has ratified (excluding Venezuela and the United States, though the latter tends to follow), countries own offshore natural resources in an area surrounding their coastlines called their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) (Bulkan 72). Exxon’s discovery 120 miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean falls within that area for Guyana, though Guyana has previously applied to extend their EEZ further (Bulkan 80). But as one scholar describes: “The oil behemoth is clear that the discovery is theirs alone—the product of venturing deep underwater where no one else could access. They are taking ownership of the seas just as English colonizers…ruled the seas and asserted force on land” (Panaram).

This bullying multinational could have encountered massive resistance, with the Guyanese government negotiating aggressively. But since the beginning, ”Champion of the Earth” Jagdeo has allowed the deal to remain favorable to Exxon, shrouded in secrecy, and escaping public regulatory oversight, keeping the ownership away from the people. In 1999, his party, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), awarded the Exxon subsidiary an oil discovery contract the same day it applied, covering 11 times the legally allowed area for such an agreement, a detail significantly favoring Exxon (Bulkan 85). After they struck oil, a $18M signing bonus from the deal went into a bank account lacking the typical financial oversight, and was not reported to the public until it leaked most of two years later. The pattern has continued since, including in the pivoting of renewable electricity plans to Exxon’s ideas.

Electricity economy

Guyana’s historic energy use has held back the country economically, with some of the most expensive electricity rates in South America and near-constant reliability issues. The country has historically been 97% dependent on Imported fossil fuels, primarily heavy fuel oil (LCDS 47). In 2014, the year before oil reserves were discovered in Guyana, the country imported the majority of its petroleum from neighboring countries Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, and Venezuela (World Integrated Trade Solution). In 2007, the World Bank Development Report on Guyana noted “the reliability of electricity supply in Guyana is low, and it is characterized by frequent and long outages” (“Guyana Investment Climate Assessment” 67). 100% of large companies use private generation methods, which are more expensive for companies (“Assessment” 68), cause additional air pollution, and are outside the direct regulation of the central power authority for managing and decarbonizing. The country has low electricity use per person among Caribbean countries, in rising tropical heat, and some of the highest prices per kWh in the region. The report ties these negative consequences to the reliance on expensive imported oil, which are exposed to price shocks of international markets. “The electricity sector in Guyana is dominated by Guyana Power and Light (GPL), a vertically integrated government-owned utility with a monopolistic position on transmission and distribution, and a major stake in generation,” it describes (“Assessment” 73).

GPL’s wide oversight of electricity generation in the country, which the World Bank does not describe generously, has nonetheless proved useful for rapid transformation and planning decarbonization. (Emphasis on the “planning.”) Guyana published its Low Carbon Development Strategy 2030 (LCDS) in 2022, which lays out the country’s energy plans. The first priority has proved improving reliability and lowering rates, increasing usage for economic growth while lowering the share citizens spend on energy and forecasting near-flat greenhouse gas emissions. In a capital sandwiched between rain(forest)s, a network of rivers, and the ocean, baking under tropical sunshine, natural energy sources are abundant. Long-term, GPL projects hydroelectric as the cheapest, and dominant, source, combined with an array of solar, wind, and energy storage projects (LCDS 52). Natural gas provides a dirty, but “firm” (consistent) energy source, whereas renewable energy sources wax and wane throughout the day and year, making them clean, but variable, sources. (Solar peaks during daylight, wind in evenings/nights, and the wet season reduces wind power, but produces more hydroelectric, in Guyana.)

As part of the Paris Agreement, the government stated that “with adequate and timely financial support, Guyana can develop a 100% renewable power supply by 2025” (INDC 10). (The country additionally noted its status as a net carbon sink due to its massive forest reserves and small emissions.) Its more recent LCDS report, however, does not repeat this goal, or state a number as a goal for its power source mix. The 2015–20 government halted progress on the largest hydropower project, under feasibility study since the 1970s, with 33 hydropower plants planned over the next 20 years for 350 MW by 2030 (LCDS 54). 39 MW of solar capacity are planned by 2025, with eight solar farms underway (OilNOW).

Those are the renewable plans. In practice, GPL has moved most urgently to switch from heavy fuel oil to cleaner natural gas for electricity generation, and the LCDS report is light on details about the fossil fuel side the PPP has prioritized. Eager to cash in on the oil discovery, they brokered a deal with Exxon to deliver natural gas they called “nearly free” from the oil extraction. A 300 MW gas-fired power plant is planned to open next year, the report describes, with lower-emission firm power to halve energy costs for ratepayers. Gas infrastructure is not free, though; bringing the gas from FPSOs to the plant will require a 120-mile offshore (seafloor) and onshore pipeline, over 100 acres of equipment outside the power plant, and more, funded by Exxon (King). Guyana will pay $55M for 20 years against the projected $1.8B total cost, locking them into ongoing dependence on their corporate overlord and increasing pollution as gas makes decreasing economic sense. The government has also applied for $646M in loan support from the United States Export-Import Bank to cover the cost (King).

The Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis sums up the project in their report entitled “Guyana Gas to Energy Project is unnecessary and financially unsustainable” (Sanzillo and Kunkel 1). Analysts describe the plant as being overbuilt for the electrical capacity needed, providing Exxon public goodwill points (for “fixing” the grid) while hurting the government’s finances with an ineffective use of public funds further entrapping them in debt. In contrast, the renewable energy plans, while still presenting significant upfront costs, have wildly low operational costs, do not rely on ongoing fuel inputs, and present no risk of unknowable environmental damages like oil spills. “Guyana could provide every home in the country with a solar and battery system for less than the cost of the Gas to Energy project,” they add (8). The government will have to subsidize the rates to meet their affordability goals, and the gas will not get cheaper, in stark contrast to the exponentially-decreasing costs of renewable energy infrastructure. The desire to rapidly move off fuel oil, given its consequences, even if the gas plant is not ideal, is understandable.

The gas Exxon wants to fuel Guyana’s power grid with, in the past, they flared. Flaring, or burning off, is a massively polluting process fossil fuel extractors use when the gas is in the wrong form or not economically/logistically viable to bring to market. This calculus changes constantly as the prices of oil and gas relative to one another, and the markets for them, fluctuate. As part of their environmental commitments, Guyana in 2016 banned nearly all flaring of gas, though Exxon remained non-compliant, burning thousands of tons of gas (Reel). In 2022, Guyana’s EPA instituted a $45/ton fine for each metric tonne of CO2-equivalent emissions from flaring; industry experts have pointed out this is nearly an incentive for flaring, since that remains the cheapest option. This is indicative of a larger trend with courting Exxon: the Guyanese government has waived environmental reviews (including for non-Exxon projects like the gas plant itself), created no new regulatory bodies to oversee oil and gas exploitation, and is allowing the company’s power to go unchecked as they rewrite the country’s electricity plans.

Electricity underlays economic power in the modern world. The lack of affordable, reliable electricity has hindered Guyana’s economy from the start, leading to excess medical deaths, increased hunger and poverty, avoidable pollution, lower industrial production, keeping entire industries out of the country, and preventing many exports from being globally price-competitive. These energy plans represent a key aspect of how Guyana is navigating its oil era, and demonstrate a depressing trajectory. Setting Paris commitments low on the priority list makes sense when basic energy needs are not being met, and other countries are not attempting to help. But in a world shifting away from oil and gas slowly but surely, with an economy staked near-exclusively on the success of the oil contracts, tying the energy system overwhelmingly to the same exploitative deal towers another key column on a shaky foundation. It undermines the narrative the LCDS extends of using the oil proceeds to build a low-carbon, high-wealth country that makes right by its citizens. Questionable financial arrangements, further debt to wealthy foreign powers and reliance on a goodwill deal with corporate overlords do not instill confidence. The PPP government’s willingness to trust Exxon’s lead in agreements further strips citizens of their power through a precarious, dirty energy system they will be stuck with long after wealthier economies move past fossil fuels.

The right to a healthy environment

Following Exxon’s move into Guyana, the United Nations Human Rights Committee requested the country’s government address whether the oil expansion would cause human rights issues (“United Nations Human Rights Committee…”). The response describes: “The Constitution of Guyana, Cap 1:01, confers on all citizens the right to a healthy environment. This is a fundamental right enforceable through judicial action in a court of law…everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to his or her health or wellbeing…an obligation on the State to protect the environment for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures designed to: A. Prevent pollution and ecological degradation; B. Promote conservation; C. Secure sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.” (OHCHR)

T.H. Marshall famously laid out the foundation of our understanding of citizens‘ rights in his 1950 article “Citizenship and Social Class.” He breaks down the rights of Western citizenship into three categories—civil, political, and social—which tend to be formalized in that order. He derived his theory from the history of Guyana’s primary colonial oppressor, England, demonstrating how the country formalized civil rights (individual liberties, freedom of speech and religion, owning property, contracts, justice) in the eighteenth century, political rights (to participate in the relevant government systems) in the nineteenth, then social rights (encompassing economic and social welfare, including welfare, security, and education) in the twentieth. Marshall emphasizes the interdependence of these rights, but that together they form a cohesive framework for full citizenship, a ladder on which societies move up. In many Global South cities, where people spanning the gamut of full citizens to illegal residents live together without the same foundational civil rights, residents often fight first for the social rights that make the most difference in their day-to-day lives. The right to a healthy environment slots is the next frontier, slotting into Marshall’s concept of social rights.

Though England’s 2021 Environment Act added a similar structure, the United States has no comparable federal environmental rights to Guyana’s. Yet even lacking a similar right, in the last few weeks, the U.S. federal government has announced a major new expansion of enforcement for environmental protections on a near-weekly basis, from the EPA’s power plant rules to ensuring lead-free drinking water for more Americans to rolling out decarbonization funding through the Inflation Reduction Act. These measures have occurred without citizen rights to a healthy environment, and with an administration similarly trying to balance expanding fossil fuel production and economic growth with the EPA’s toxics-regulating mandate, but with a well-staffed EPA full of well-trained officers. In their Bloomberg Businessweek story, Reel documents a slice of the complete insufficiency of the Guyanese EPA, interviewing an administrator (who spent most of his career in the U.S.) brought in for regulating the oil companies who was the singular person in the government with petroleum engineering expertise, before eventually being fired by the PPP government.

There are no obvious answers how to follow through on these rights in the context of cycles of climate collapse and poverty. Maintaining a healthy environment for Guyana could look like ceasing the polluting oil drilling on their shores. Many citizens believe so, creating grassroots artwork and activism the paper “El/Oil Dorado” analyzes, from protests to films. Last year, citizens filed a landmark lawsuit claiming the massive offshore oil projects are unconstitutional considering the right to a safe environment (“Guyanese Citizens File…”). A lawyer on the case commented: “Guyana’s petroleum production is a potential 3.87 gigatonne carbon bomb, putting Guyana at the forefront of the fight to save the planet from oil and gas.” Another: “An oil and gas industry is difficult to reconcile with [Guyana’s] international environmental commitments and the constitution.”

Another option for making true on this right is to find funding sources through conservation like Guyana’s bilateral agreement with Norway. Some revenues from that agreement are currently funding the new solar plants (OilNOW), creating a virtuous cycle of green-making. But the Norwegian agreement’s economic magnitude is not growing GDP by 50% year-over-year. Maintaining a healthy environment, the PPP argues, looks like finding the money for Georgetown to keep existing, through encouraging oil drilling (without looking too closely at the power structures or consequences). The royalties generated build housing, new infrastructure like the Gas to Energy plant to replace the unsafe conditions their old, dirtier grid created, and maintenance of the sea walls and drainage systems. With the “obligation on the State to protect the environment for the benefit of present and future generations,” an economy with infrastructure allowing the capital to go underwater can arguably be violating that right. But when including the emissions from the exported oil with the domestic forest management practices and energy pathways, researchers have found, “Guyana is not on a sustainable pathway” (Mentis and Moonsammy).

Human rights written on paper, we must conclude, are a nice stated intention. But they are only as meaningful not even as our tools and systems to enforce them, but as they are enforced. Whether citizens have the power to determine that and how their rights are enforced matters far more than how the rights are written down. After suffering devastating environmental damage from gold mining, Guyanese people have a right to a healthy environment, which under Marshall’s ladder looks like an advanced stage of development. When reframed with the tepid response to their environmental protection lawsuit, the lack of any regulatory body for oil exploitation, an over-permissive EPA, and the prioritization of a natural gas pipeline, it looks less meaningful. Many countries around the world have a similar right to the environment, yet climate change proceeds unchecked. And the United States, though far from an environmental protection icon, makes more significant protection advances without a Constitutional right. Rights can encode citizen expectations, but they’re only worth the enforcement citizens are able to command. Power must lie with the citizens.


The first decade since Exxon’s oil discovery in Guyana has permanently altered the trajectory of the country, beginning a new chapter in its history. Whether that chapter will be remembered as the latest colonization in a twenty-first century corporate format, a young democracy discovering a balance between oil proceeds and environmental rights for its citizens, or a successful navigation of economic empowerment amid climate collapse, remains to be seen. Not even five years out from the first oil exports, questions abound. We must wait to see the Gas to Energy project completed, how Venezuela’s threats progress, what future regulation on issues like flaring look like from the Guyanese EPA, updates on their contributions to the Paris Agreement, on what types of infrastructure projects the oil royalties are spent.

Oil builds power, and who holds the oil is critical. Coming out of its colonial-era weakness into its oil era with sky-high unemployment, a struggling economy, a new democracy, and a vulnerable physical state, the government negotiated weak terms with oil companies. At every stage of Guyana’s transition into this era, the country has allowed democratic participation to suffer to ensure oil exploration would progress; Alyssa Nurse describes it through the country’s long history of the “plantation economy.” While the government actively attempts to avoid a disastrous resource curse, red flags have emerged from the first exploratory permit onward if the government is unable to keep the oil conglomerates in check. Being a citizen means having a stake—power—in the country, and the discovery of massive oil deposits created a crucible for Guyanese rights and freedoms this century. Georgetown’s building spree is employing and housing many workers. The new fortunes to be made are luring back the diaspora in a country long mired with double-digit brain drain (and one with regressive social laws like anti-sodomy still present). Oil is evidently making citizenship more appealing than ever, even without citizen-first policies like royalty sharing.

Oil will not define the global economy forever, and Georgetown is trying to cash in during the key years as climate collapse simultaneously sets in. The dream is to be a new type of oil producer, where royalties are spent on building a renewable power grid, reinforced seawalls to protect citizens, new housing and roads and bridges, and a diversified economy emerges that competes on the world stage outside of and beyond the lifespan of “peak oil.” Citizens must continuously assert their power to see this vision through, or risk losing it to a government chasing the windfall.

Works Cited

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Bulkan, Janette. “The Limits of State Territorialisation: Geopolitics and Petroleum in Guyana.” Social and Economic Studies, vol. 70, no. 3, 2021, pp. 72-105. ProQuest,

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Guapizaca, Erick. “Voting To Annex? - On the Venezuelan 2023 Esequibo Referendum.” Verfassungsblog, no. 2366–7044, 2023,

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“Guyana’s Revised Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC).” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1 Oct. 2015,

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King, Kemol. “Guyana’s Gas-to-Energy project (The basics).” OilNOW, 27 Jun. 2023,

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McDonald, Lewis, and Murat Üngör. “New Oil Discoveries in Guyana since 2015: Resource Curse or Resource Blessing.” Resources Policy, vol. 74, 2021, pp. 102363-,

Mentis, Alan, and Stephan Moonsammy. “A Critical Assessment of Guyana’s Sustainability Pathway: Perspectives from a Developing Extractive Economy.” Resources Policy, vol. 76, 2022, pp. 102554-,

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Panaram, Sasha A. “El/Oil Dorado: Art and Activism in Guyana.” Journal of West Indian Literature, vol. 32, no. 1, 2023, pp. 97-116, 240. ProQuest,

Reel, Monte. “A Nation in the Crosshairs of Climate Change Is Ready to Get Rich on Oil.” Bloomberg, 18 Nov. 2022,

“Regulator says impact studies not needed for eight solar farms earmarked for Guyana coast.” OilNOW, 21 Nov. 2023,

Rosati, Andrew, and Joe Carroll. “Exxon’s Guyana Oil Discovery May Be 12 Times Larger Than Economy.” Bloomberg, 21 Jul. 2015,

Sanzillo, Tom, and Cathy Kunkel. “Guyana Gas to Energy Project is unnecessary and financially unsustainable.” Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, 4 Oct. 2023,

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