Business Central & South America

Tiny Guyana may soon be thrust into the ranks of the world’s top oil producers

There’s a new oil producer on the block. Guyana, a tiny nation of less than a million people, and the third-poorest nation in South America, just discovered oil reserves off its coast. Guyana is on the cusp of a critical national decision, one that may determine whether the oil will bring its citizens fortune or misfortune. Plus, learn the English phrase “on par with.”

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  • Tiny Guyana may soon be thrust into the ranks of the world’s top oil producers

    Hi there, welcome to another Plain English lesson, number 247. The full lesson is available at PlainEnglish.com/247. I’m Jeff, JR is the producer, and you are the best audience in the world. That’s what someone said last year and I couldn’t agree more.

    Coming up today: Oil is starting to flow off the coast of Guyana, a tiny South American nation of less than a million people. How will Guyana use its newfound oil wealth? That’s what we’ll explore on today’s lesson. In the second half of the audio lesson, we’ll talk about the English phrase “on par with.” The video lesson at PlainEnglish.com/247 is about the word “barely.” And of course JR has a song of the week.


    Guyana’s oil windfall

    It’s called “black gold”: black, because that’s how it looks when it comes out of the ground, and gold, because it makes everyone who touches it rich. Despite all the press and attention around renewable energy sources in recent years, oil is still a major driver of the world economy.

    So when ExxonMobil announced in 2015 that it had discovered oil sandstone reserves about 125 miles off the coast of Guyana, the fortunes of South America’s third-poorest nation looked a bit brighter. At the time, neither ExxonMobil nor the Guyanese citizens had any idea exactly how much oil would eventually be found. Today, the scale of the discovery is clearer.

    Guyana is sitting on about 8 billion barrels of oil, enough to put it in the top 20 countries in the world, in terms of total oil reserves. The country struck a deal with ExxonMobil that allows the American company to extract the oil and pay the country’s government a royalty. ExxonMobil hopes to be extracting 750,000 barrels of oil per day by 2025. The fortunes of Guyana’s 780,000 citizens may—and I emphasize may—change forever.

    Guyana is a poor and struggling country. Public education for children is abysmal: although kids spend twelve years in school, they graduate having learned only about seven years of material. Four-fifths of its university graduates leave the country, so meager are the opportunities at home. Over 90 percent of the country’s inhabitants live in low-lying areas that are prone to flooding; though the country is about the size of São Paulo state in Brazil, the vast majority of its land area is uninhabited, dense forest. Guyana’s infrastructure is weak: barely seven percent of roadways are paved and power cuts are common. Infant and maternal mortality is high. Guyana has the world’s highest suicide rate.

    Oil riches could transform Guyana. The country’s GDP per person, in nominal terms, is about $5,000, the third-lowest in South America, ahead of only Bolivia and Venezuela. Some estimates suggest the nation’s GDP per person could more than triple, putting it well ahead of many other countries on the continent and on par with regional leaders like Chile and Uruguay.

    Unlike many countries in Latin America, Guyana does not have a state oil company and doesn’t have a well-developed oil extraction industry. It will therefore allow ExxonMobil to extract the oil, and it will charge a royalty for each barrel of oil extracted. A royalty is simply like a tax applied to the amount of a resource that is taken from the ground.

    The government set up a sovereign wealth fund to hold the royalty payments. A sovereign wealth fund is like a big national savings and investment account. This is a model followed by Norway, which has built up enormous national wealth, and many Middle Eastern countries.

    According to Guyana’s plans, the sovereign wealth fund can only be used for long-term projects like infrastructure—which the country badly needs—and not to pay for day-to-day expenses. In principle, this is unquestionably a good idea. If you have any doubts about that, look at neighboring Venezuela, which used its oil wealth to shower citizens with money and buy votes—only to see that money collapse as the supply of oil depleted.

    Foreign bankers are said to be bombarding Guyana with offers to lend them money, backed by future oil royalties. The government has wisely rejected these offers, not wanting to bury its citizens in debt so soon after the discovery. Better to be patient and control their own destiny via the wealth-fund rather than go on a debt-fueled spending spree now, government ministers say. The fact that any government had the spine to stand up to that temptation is a reason for optimism. The finance minister said he was committed to avoiding the “resource curse.” The resource curse is the term to describe the pattern, repeated over and over around the world, where natural resource discoveries leave corrupt government ministers fat and happy, but the country’s citizens as poor as ever.

    So Guyana is off to a good start. But there are some warning signs. Its politics are tribal. Instead of having two or more parties compete on the basis of ideas, the two main parties compete based on ethnic loyalties. This generally leads to favoritism, corruption, and a stagnation of ideas and progress. The current president, David Granger, was up for re-election on March 2. A winner has still not been announced and some fear he may be trying to manipulate his way into a second term. If he forces his way into a second term with a cloud over his head, his government will have lost much of its legitimacy. If he loses, the opposition party would take the reins of government and loosen some protections on the oil revenues.

    Guyana is on the cusp of a critical national decision. It can become more like Venezuela, Angola or Nigeria, whose leaders became wealthy and powerful but whose citizens were deprived of any benefit. Or it can become more like Norway, Singapore, or the US state of Alaska, where the funds are saved, reinvested, and ultimately used to benefit future generations.


    I wanted to take a moment and report some results from the Plain English listener survey. We had several hundred people take the survey, so thank you very much to all of you who did so. If you haven’t taken the survey, you can still do so at PlainEnglish.com/survey.

    The first question I asked was, Why are you studying English? Over half of you said, to improve in your career. I know from correspondence that that is a big reason why people are studying English, and indeed 51 percent of you said that career improvement is your primary reason for studying. Seventeen percent said leisure, like travel, music, and movies, while fourteen percent said it was to maintain the knowledge you already had.

    In the next section, I listed eight statements and asked you if any of these were true for you. You could choose one, all, none, or any combination. Out of the eight choices I gave, the most popular choices were: number one, “It’s hard for me to express complex ideas;” number two, “I feel shy or embarrassed when speaking in English;” and number three, “It’s hard to understand native speakers at their full speed.”

    Here’s one that surprised me. One of the statements was, “I don’t have anyone to talk to in English,” and 46 percent of you said that was true. It surprised me that this was so high. As an English speaker, I just figured that English speakers are everywhere, but it looks like a lot of you don’t have speaking partners in English. Maybe—just maybe—we’ll work to do something about that in the future of Plain English.

    One more survey response I’ll share. I suspected that since you’re listening to English lessons that you’d want to hear about the English-speaking world. And at various points in the history of Plain English, I’ve wondered whether I should concentrate more, if not exclusively, on things happening in the English-speaking world. So one of the questions asked if you’d prefer only hearing about topics related to the English-speaking world, and only 15 percent of you said yes!

    To be honest, I’m relieved because I love researching and writing episodes about the whole world—like this one about Guyana. I especially like the ones about Japan—the crying coaches, the nap rooms—so I’m glad you guys enjoy those too.

    On par with

    Today’s expression is “on par with.” What does “on par with” mean? It means, “about equal to” or “about as good as.”

    Here’s how you heard it in today’s main lesson. We were talking about the discovery of oil in Guyana. I said that this discovery could put Guyana, which is now South America’s second-poorest country, on par with regional leaders like Chile and Uruguay. In this part of the lesson, we were talking about GDP per person, a common measure of how well-developed an economy is. Guyana’s GDP is about $5,000 US dollars per person. Some estimates said their GDP per person could triple. Triple would be $15,000 per person. Chile’s GDP per person is $15,000 and Uruguay’s is $17,000, plus or minus.

    So you can see we’re not talking about precise numbers. When I say that Guyana’s GDP per person may be on par with Chile and Uruguay, I’m not saying down to the dollar. I’m just saying, it would be about at that same level. About equal to it.

    I’ve mentioned before that we’re in primary election season in the US, and our individual states all have elections on different days. Some had their elections before coronavirus, some postponed their elections until June, and others held their elections right in the middle of the pandemic worries. My state, Illinois, was one of those states. There was a big worry that people wouldn’t come out to vote, out of fear of catching the coronavirus. And indeed that was true in the big city in my state, Chicago. But in the more rural areas, voter turnout was on par with expectations.

    I don’t mean that voter turnout was exactly, precisely what was expected. But it was about what was expected. In other words, when counting the votes, the state didn’t see a large drop in voter turnout in these rural areas. Voter turnout was on par with expectations; it was about equal to what people thought it would be.

    Many people are worried that the decline in global stock markets will continue. As bad as the decline has been, it’s still not on par with the declines, in percentage terms, that we saw during the 2008 financial crisis. In the US, stock values declined by 55% during that recession. The recent decline in stock values is not yet on par with the decline in the most recent recession.

    These are three cases in which we’re comparing amounts—so in these cases, “on par with” means “about equal to.” There is another way of using “on par with” and that is to describe quality.

    Let’s take an example from the supermarket. Here in the US, most supermarkets carry big national or international brands of popular foods—Campbell’s soup, Heinz ketchup, Oreo cookies, Kraft macaroni and cheese, Rold Gold pretzels, Coca-Cola soft drinks, things like that. They also have their own brands of many of these products and the store’s own versions will usually be a bit cheaper, maybe 20 percent cheaper.

    Have you ever tried the store brand equivalent of an Oreo cookie? I’m sorry, but it’s not the real thing. In this case, the store brand is not on par with the classic Nabisco cookie. Oreos have been around since 1912, and for good reason: they taste great! And the store brands just can’t reproduce that taste. The store brands are not on par with the original.

    But in other cases, they come pretty close. The difference between a store brand pretzel and Rold Gold pretzels is not that great. The store brands, in these cases, are on par with the well-known national brand. They are as good as the national brand.

    Remember the episode we did about Porsche’s all-new electric sports car, the Taycan? They’re betting that most of their customers will find the electric Porsche to be on par with the traditional Boxter or 911. Some purists that like to shift their own gears and hear the roar of the engine won’t be impressed. They won’t ever think an electric vehicle is on par with Porsche’s traditional cars. But Porsche is betting those people are in the minority. They think many of their customers will think the new Taycan is on par with their other sports cars, if not even better.

    JR’s song of the week

    Today’s song of the week is “Instant Crush” by the French electronic music group Daft Punk and the American singer Julian Casablancas. The song debuted in 2013 and was a big hit in Europe. JR likes it because it’s relaxing—at least for electronic music. So if you’re looking for another song for your Spotify playlist, consider “Instant Crush” by Daft Punk and Julian Casablancas.


    That’s all for today. Stay home, stay safe, check on your friends and family in this time of uncertainty and coronavirus. We’ll be here with you every Monday and Thursday for a new English lesson.

    If you’ve got some extra time on your hands and would like to spend some more time with English, then you might enjoy Plain English Plus+ . As a member of Plain English Plus+, you’ll get access to the fast version of every episode, video lessons, flash cards, and the lesson transcripts with built-in translations into seven languages. Those are Portuguese, Spanish, German, Japanese, Italian, French, and Chinese.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

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