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Independent of Petrotrin refinery—fallout

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Dark clouds over Port-of- Spain’s Independence celebrations yesterday belied the traditional bright August 31 weatherpattern.

People lined Tragarete Road’s parade route admiring marching uniformed corps. By 11.30 am, showers descended—and further South, lay much darker skies.

Understandably. It would have been a melancholy holiday for those to be affected by Government’s plan to render Petrotrin, independent of refinery by October.

The Rowley PNM administration’s latest target for change—affecting 1700 of Petrotrin’s 5,000 workers— will create as much history as the Manning PNM’s 2003 closure of Caroni (1975) Ltd.

The latter holds bitter memories for some ex-workers still awaiting settlements; and those who believe Caroni could have launched T&T’s diversification, had intuition, interest and initiative been forthcoming That Government’s decided to “bite the bullet” on such an emotive issue as closing Petrotrin’s refinery, especially at mid term—despite unpopularity— takes political fortitude.

Government had a limited timeline by which to deal with Petrotrin, considering fallout and upcoming elections.

Whether public backlash will detract from projected benefit remains to unfold. Bitterness of the Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU) on the issue was never more evident than in its leadership’s sarcastic “Old man…” remark pelted at Government on Tuesday.

Nor was it unexpected OWTU jefe Ancel Roget would vow to ensure Government closes its job if workers lose theirs.

The situation would be galling to OWTU which supported PNM’s thrust against the PP administration and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the PNM. The situation stands to shake T&T’s largest, most powerful union, not only financially, but regarding image and credibility—particularly Roget’s.

Ripple effects will trickle to the rest of the labour sector, hence swift solidarity.

PNM’s 2015 election manifesto and 2016 Budget didn’t mention Petrotrin.

But after effects of the oil price drop, the 2017 and 2018 Budgets sounded the alarm, particularly on company debt and loans of (US) $850m and (US) $750m, due next year and in 2022. Completion of the Lashley team’s review was ominously swift.

Though Government kept distance from the development—allowing Petrotrin’s Board to drop the blow—blistering reaction caused enough heat for adjustment.

Energy Minister Franklin Khan had to weigh in on the matter rather than having the public wait until Prime Minister Keith Rowley’s discourse tomorrow. Obvious misjudgement of a sensitive issue which can’t be contained because of the expanse of factors involved.

Khan, conceding effect on 3,000/2,500 families, spun the situation as potential to create opportunities for workers, as he claimed occurred in Central with Caroni’s closure.

T&T’s economy was however, different in 2003. Dollar value’s depreciated. What may have been possible then, may not be now, in the stagnated landscape where funds are guarded against becoming prey to high prices, more taxes or crime.

With collateral damage extending to supply companies, how far economic ripple effects reach, depends on how those affected reorganise/ re-tool and handle reserves/ assets. Government signals that the $1b-plus needed for workers’ termination benefits, may be borrowed— and taxpayers ultimately have to fund this—raises concerns on long term effect, and what repayment may require.

Transitioning to Petrotrin’s future fuel terminalling facility is still incomplete since Government hasn’t decided on fuel source.

The blow to workers in Opposition held areas—is however also a political boon to the UNC, now with a significant platform for battle.

Particularly since PNM held areas— La Brea, Point Fortin—would maintain Exploration/Production work.

Yesterday Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar extended public outreach attending several Independence events. UNC hold a planning retreat Tuesday on Parliament resumption and performance after three years in Opposition.

Government’s Petrotrin decision, pouring oil on assorted troubled waters locally, will feature in assessment of its performance on Friday’s third anniversary also. Rowley’s address will therefore have to offer more than figures on Petrotrin’s failures, “opportunity” spin or patriotism platitudes.

OWTU may not have intended Friday’s Rest/Reflection timeout with a message beyond critiquing Government performance, but the message will likely be stronger following refinery closure plans.

For Marabella residents’ lifetime alongside Petrotrin’s landmark “Cat” (Catalytic) Cracker, when its flame goes out in October, South’s skyline will be that much darker.


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