This tiny nation on the north coast of South America is about to become the world’s newest petrostate—and potentially the richest. In 2015, ExxonMobil made what one of its executives described as a “fairy tale” discovery in the vast Stabroek exploration block off the Guyanese coast. Since then, it’s found so much oil that by the mid-2020s Guyana, with a population of about 778,000, will probably produce more crude per citizen than any other country.
Crucially, however, Guyana—a poor former colony, first of the Dutch, then of the British—is unprepared for what’s coming. Its petroleum laws were written in the 1980s. The Department of Energy has an annual budget of $2 million. Five years after Exxon’s discovery, the country still hasn’t finished crafting relevant new laws or even established a regulatory body to oversee exploration and production. Last year the government set up a sovereign wealth fund to soak up as much as $5 billion in oil revenue per year by 2025, but there are no plans for how to spend it.