NASSAU, Bahamas (AP) -- Offshore oil exploration will be allowed off the Bahamas, the environmental minister said Sunday, adding that a voter referendum on whether to go forward with full production will be held only after it is determined whether the island chain has commercially viable reserves.
The exploratory drilling will not likely produce enough information to make a decision until late 2014 at the earliest and the referendum could be held the following year, Environmental Minister Kenred Dorsett said.
Offshore drilling is sensitive in the Bahamas, where many fear a spill could devastate the fishing and tourism industries. The previous Bahamian government had delayed issuing exploration permits. Prime Minister Perry Christie, who was voted back into office in May, has said he supported exploration.
Dorsett said the government would seek new regulations to protect the environment and cannot ignore the potential economic benefits of oil for a country that now imports fuel. "The discovery of oil in the Bahamas would almost certainly prove to be economically transformative for our nation for many generations to come," he said in a statement.
The announcement came after a delegation of Bahamian officials, including Dorsett, recently returned from neighboring Cuba, where he said they discussed that country's exploration efforts and the "need for enhanced environmental vigilance and protection," in an environmentally sensitive region just off the southeastern coast of the U.S.
Geologic surveys say 5 billion to 9 billion barrels of oil may lie off Cuba's coast. Three exploratory wells proved nonviable in 2012, a blow to a government eager for an injection of petrodollars to boost its struggling economy. In December, a Norwegian-owned platform arrived in waters off Cuba's north-central coast for exploratory drilling by the Russian oil company Zarubezhneft for operations expected to take six months.
Dorsett said the fact that Cuba is pursuing exploration so seriously suggests there are likely substantial reserves so the Bahamas must move quickly to decide whether it wants to pursue offshore oil and adopt the necessary regulations. The minister said the proposed new regulations are nearly finished and will be presented to the Cabinet soon.
He said it makes sense to have the regulations in place and to determine if there is indeed offshore oil before going to the public for a vote. "Obviously, we are not going to have a referendum on a hypothetical proposition," he said.
The private Bahamas Petroleum Company hopes to begin exploration in a block about 60 miles from (97 kilometers) from where the Russian company is drilling off Cuba, according to CEO Simon Potter. The company still needs to find a drilling partner but hopes to begin what will likely be a year-long exploration before the 2014 hurricane season.
"With today's announcement, we have been granted the opportunity to do precisely that. And for that opportunity, we are genuinely excited," Potter said.