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Slipping on the oil spill

By Sunity Maharaj

 It is the measure of our historical alienation that we know next to nothing about the energy industry on which we are almost completely dependent. We live on the fruit end of the business where the only thing of importance is price. Apart from that, we are largely content to live in blissful ignorance and leave the rest to Houston or Melbourne or wherever.

The horrendous oil spill that has been coursing like poison through coastal communities in south Trinidad exemplifies our flat-footedness even at the highest levels.

Notwithstanding the newly updated National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCP), we have been consistently behind the curve on this one.

The first disaster was Petrotrin’s statement issued on December 19,a full two days after a leak was discovered. In it, Petrotrin assured the public that “it has mobilised all available resources to manage the spill response efforts in an effective and efficient manner and the situation is under control”.

It claimed that it had cleaned up the spill and that an aerial survey conducted on the 18th had found “no sheen or oil along the shoreline spanning Claxton Bay, San Fernando, Mosquito Creek and Otaheite”.

Not mentioned, at least in the media report, was the coastline of La Brea.

The company’s claim that the situation was “under control” was immediately contradicted by La Brea residents who complained about nausea and headaches and led reporters to the accumulation of oil and sludge along the La Brea shoreline from where it was beginning to spread.

While media reports quoted Petrotrin officials as saying they did not know the source of the leak, OE (Offshore Engineer) Digital Edition was reporting that the leak was found on the No 10 Sea Line at the Petrotrin Pointe-a-Pierre Port during fuel oil bunkers loading operations for the barge Marabella.

On December 21, 96 hours after the disaster had struck, Petrotrin’s management called a news conference to present its take on the problem as a mystery, raising the spectre of sabotage.  Up to this point, the oil spill was being handled as a Petrotrin problem without any reference to the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan. It was not until the next day, December 22, that the Minister of Energy triggered the NOSCP in recognition of the fact that T&T was dealing with an oil spill disaster of Tier 3 magnitude.

The big question is: why did it take so long for the ministry to recognise the depth of the problem?

The National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (2013) defines a Tier 3 spill as one “requiring substantial resources and support from regional or international oil spill co-operatives to mitigate effects perceived to be wide-reaching, ie, of national or international significance”.

According to the Plan, operators that are in the business of oil and gas production and shipping of crude oil “shall be required to obtain membership with a suitable Tier 3 oil spill equipment cooperative that can mobilise equipment into the country within at least 24 - 48 hours”. (My emphasis)

In determining the tier of a spill, operators must apply a given mathematical formula. In being categorised at Tier 3, the Petrotrin Oil Spill would have qualified as a Worst Case Discharge as defined under the NOSCP.

It was not until Christmas Day, a full week after the leak was sprung, that the complement of personnel from Florida-based Oil Spill Response Ltd arrived in Trinidad to begin tackling the job.

It is hard to escape the concern that someone with regulatory responsibility was sleeping on the job.  As lead agency, the Ministry of Energy and Energy Affairs was far too absent from the scene in the critical first hours of this disaster. Indeed, the Minister of Energy did not emerge publicly until more than 100 hours after the problem emerged. 

Whether or not ministry personnel were liaising with Petrotrin’s management, it was its clear responsibility to take command of the situation and address the issue publicly within the first 24 hours of the leak and to begin activating the Plan’s Incident Command System. Notably, when activated, the NOSCP is managed by a Standing Cabinet-appointed committee, which would seem to have been nowhere in sight as the southern coastline was turning into oil. Equally absent was the Information officer of the Ministry of Energy who is built into the top of the NOSCP’s response team for Tier 3 spills.

Of particular interest is Petrotrin’s reference to the leaking oil as a “mystery”. In the context of oil spills, the term “mystery” has a very precise meaning as a reference to  spills from an indeterminate source. There is no doubt that the source of the current spill is Petrotrin. The question now is whether a claim of “mystery” can be extended to the cause of the spill and, so, cast doubt on our assumption of Petrotrin as the Responsible Party in this case.According to the NOSCP, in cases where the Responsible Party (RP) in an oil spill cannot be identified, the Government acting through the Ministry of Energy will assume clean-up costs by accessing the NOSCP Fund until such time as the RP is identified, assuming that party is ever identified. 

So far, the PM and the Minister of Energy seem to accept Petrotrin’s assertion of a mystery. Whether their interpretation of “mystery” opens a channel to the NOSCP Fund for Petrotrin now remains to be seen.

Interestingly, the NOSCP states that where there is dispute over responsibility, a three-member Fact-finding commission of enquiry must be launched within seven days of the dispute.

Many, many questions linger, not least of which is the notion of “full and final” payment of compensation to affected residents, the mushrooming of other “mysterious” spills, and the integrity of Petrotrin’sclean-up efforts. Given the indistinguishable relationship between the government, as regulator, and Petrotrin, as Responsible Party, we might have to depend on Parliament, or whistle blowers, to spill the beans on this oil spill.

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