JONATHAN BARRETT & HENNING GLOYSTEIN | Reuters | Extract
SYDNEY/SINGAPORE - A deadly earthquake that struck ExxonMobil's $19 billion gas project in the mountains of Papua New Guinea is sparking a backlash against the US energy giant that could prove harder to fix than buried roads and broken pipes.
Some spooked locals blame Exxon and its project partners of causing, or at least magnifying, the 7.5 magnitude quake on 26 February and a series of intense aftershocks that continue to pound the impoverished and isolated region.
While firmly denied by Exxon and debunked by geologists, the accusations suggest that the project known as PNG LNG, one of the most successful liquefied natural gas (LNG) developments in the world, is sorely lacking goodwill from at least parts of the local population.
The concerns about the project – the country’s biggest revenue earner - are even being expressed at senior levels in the Papua New Guinea government.
PNG's vice minister for petroleum and energy, Manasseh Makiba, told Reuters in a phone interview there should be an inquiry to respond to local concerns that mother nature had reacted after the ground was disturbed by drilling.
"It could be man-made but that cannot be confirmed until a proper scientific inquiry can be done," said Makiba, who represents parts of the quake-hit area. "We need to resolve that."
PNG’s minister for finance James Marape has also demanded answers from the company.
"In a world of science and knowledge, I now demand answer(s) from Exxon and my own government as to the cause of this unusual trend in my Hela," wrote Marape on his private feed on Facebook, referring to the quake-struck province.
He is among many who have lit up social media in PNG, with blogs and Facebook posts pointing the finger at the oil and gas sector's alleged contribution to the disaster.
Around Exxon's operation, communities remain fearful as the death toll climbs, with 18 more killed by a 6.7 magnitude aftershock on Wednesday.
Papua New Guinea straddles the geologically active Pacific Ring of Fire.
Chris McKee, acting director of the Geohazards Management Division in Port Moresby, said there was no link between the project and seismic activity, which has included more than 120 quakes of magnitude 4.5 and greater in the week after the initial hit.