Sunday, February 25, 2018

Today, it’s Petrotrin; tomorrow, who knows?

Express editorial logo293

Mark Fraser

 Upon the broad back of Petrotrin has fallen the combined lash of adverse publicity leading to public disrepute, entailing denunciations by the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union, protests by La Brea residents, and condemnations by area MPs. Further chastisement has included a guilty verdict, and $20 million fine, imposed by the Environmental Management Authority. 

Much had indisputably gone wrong. The effect was to deny any prospect of Christmas and year-end conviviality at Petrotrin, and in areas affected by oil spills of cause so mysterious and extent so widespread as to indicate the work of some ill-willing hand. 

In connection with successive oil spills, the state-owned company admitted to Environmental Management Act violations cited by the authority. As yet, it remains for some suitably authoritative inquiry to determine the provable causes of hydrocarbon seepage capable of despoiling precious environmental settings, and threatening incomes and livability in southern-Trinidad areas.

The spills keep making news, disrupting normality over wide areas, and undermining confidence in the capacity of Petrotrin to manage the risk element in its business as a key energy-sector operator. Energy, which drives the T&T economy and sustains national well-being, implies industry and activity which, if not properly managed, are also capable of producing harm.

Moreover, what affects Petrotrin also applies to the rest of the energy industry, of which state enterprises are critical, but not necessarily the most important, parts.

EMA CEO Allan Bachan last week characterised the unhappy oil spill pollution episode affecting Petrotrin as “unprecedented”. Certainly, it has constituted a kind of national wake-up call, to realise that this kind of thing can happen.

Now that it has happened in the full glare of national and international publicity, it must serve as prudent forewarning of the kind of detrimental effects at least conceivable in a country dependent on an energy industry. To this extent, then, the 2013-2014 Petrotrin case must now apply as a precedent for potential energy-industry mishaps affecting the environment.

Though massively exposed, as an upstream and downstream operator, and with large legacy liabilities, Petrotrin is far from T&T’s biggest player in the energy industry. Misfortunes, of origins still unclarified, that have befallen the state enterprise, are such as the large, international operators, despite presumably better preparations, could in their turn be subject to.

Petrotrin’s present predicament does, then, present not just an energy industry and energy-based country liability, but also an upside. That is to say, present experience could, and should, serve as a learnable moment for all concerned. 

Indeed, all in T&T should be concerned to recognise in this oil spill episode a benchmark signifying what can happen, and what needs to be done, if and when energy industry mishaps occur. Specifically, however, all industry players, regulatory authorities, and the Government must learn how to do better next time.