The Bahamas is reconsidering oil exploration in its offshore waters, with an objective to raise revenues and reduce the debt burden.

The latest move suggests an end to government reluctance shown earlier to the initiative, amid concerns expressed by citizens that a spill could destroy the country’s fishing and tourism industries.

Bahamas Environmental Minister Kenred Dorsett was quoted by The Associated Press as saying the government will first assess if the island chain has commercially viable reserves, before holding a voter referendum to decide on whether to proceed with full production.

Dorsett said any decision based on the information from the exploratory drilling is unlikely to be made before 2014, and then a referendum would likely be held in 2015.

The minister noted that the government cannot overlook potential economic advantages of oil for a country that currently imports fuel and will seek new regulations to protect the environment.

"The discovery of oil in the Bahamas would almost certainly prove to be economically transformative for our nation for many generations to come," Dorsett said in a press statement.

"The government cannot overlook potential economic advantages of oil for a country that currently imports fuel."

The government made the announcement following the return of a delegation of Bahamian officials, including Dorsett, from neighbouring Cuba, where they discussed Cuba’s exploration efforts. Geological surveys have showed the presence of nearly five to nine billion barrels of oil off Cuba’s coast.

Dorsett said Bahamas should also seriously pursue exploration like Cuba has, and take an immediate decision on whether to go ahead with offshore oil and implement the necessary regulations. According to the minister, the proposed new regulations will soon be completed and will be presented to the Cabinet for approval.

Bahamas Petroleum Company CEO, Simon Potter, welcomed the government’s decision and said the company is expecting to start exploration in a block about 60 miles (97km) from where Russian oil company Zarubezhneft is drilling off Cuba.

Potter was quoted by the news agency as saying: "With today’s announcement, we have been granted the opportunity to do precisely that. And for that opportunity, we are genuinely excited."

The company is currently looking for a drilling partner, and expects to begin a year-long exploration before the 2014 hurricane season.

Image: The Bahamas will decide on full production from offshore oil exploration through a referendum. Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos / njaj.