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US Ambassador complains to PM on energy projects

Thursday, February 9, 2012
Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, left, and Helen Clark, under-secretary of the United Nations and United Nations United Nations Development Programme pose for a photograph at the launch of the Caribbean Human Development Report 2012 at the National Academy for the Performing Arts, Queen’s Park West, Port-of-Spain, yesterday. PHOTO: ABRAHAM DIAZ

United States Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago Beatrice Wilkinson Welters has written to the Government, raising concerns about the Government’s proposal to award two projects worth US$5.3 billion to a consortium led by the Saudi Arabia’s state company SABIC. The ambassador’s letter followed major objections raised by US interests that they were unfairly bypassed in favour of the Saudis in what is an increasingly controversial project. Well placed sources at the Ministry of Energy said last Thursday that Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar ordered that the Cabinet not award the project until the Government was able to respond to the US Ambassador and this led to the decision being deferred to today.   


In an e-mailed response to queries from the T&T Guardian, the US Embassy confirmed raising the issue of the methanol to petrochemical projects with the Government. It wrote: “We have contacted the Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago regarding proposed petrochemical projects. The United States enjoys a robust commercial relationship with Trinidad and Tobago “Many US-based companies are interested in doing business in Trinidad and Tobago, and US firms have played key roles in helping develop the energy sector here, bringing innovative technology and financing to new industries. “Part of the embassy’s function is to communicate with the Government regarding both economic trends and specific commercial opportunities in both countries, and we feel that we maintain a solid and honest relationship with many Ministers in that regard.”


The project has been increasingly mired in controversy with major disagreements between former energy minister Carolyn Seepersad Bachan and her replacement Kevin Ramnarine over the price the Saudis were proposing to pay for natural gas. It has been further revealed that the plants will not be built in La Brea but they have been moved to Point Lisas. Now come allegations of a flawed process. While the US Embassy did not respond directly to the question if it was satisfied with the Government’s response to the issue, it said: “Business facilitation is a key function of any diplomatic mission. “And like our counterparts from other countries, the US Embassy in Port-of- Spain works to ensure that American firms are aware of the business climate and of business opportunities in Trinidad and Tobago, and that they have equal and fair access to bidding opportunities,” the embassy said.


“In the normal course of business, the ambassador will occasionally inquire about Government policies and processes, particularly if there is interest in a specific project by one or more US firms.” The Guardian has been told that US firms have contended that the Saudis were not part of the early process. Minutes from the technical meetings in which the interested parties were all expected to be present indicated no reference to SABIC being in the meetings. The minutes show Celanese Corporation Headquarters, Methanex Trinidad Ltd, Chemtech Ltd, Methanol Holdings, Gal (India) Limited, Mitsui and Co. USA, Inc, Integrated Chemicals Co. Ltd all being present and one Mr John Blieszner.  Sources on the evaluation team at the ministry told the T&T Guardian that SABIC was at the meeting but never identified themselves. They insist that the process was above board and that the Saudis won the deal fair and square.


The proposal by the Saudi Arabia’s state-owned company, Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), to build a methanol to petrochemicals complex and a methanol to Olefins plant will use more an a quarter billion cubic feet of natural gas a day. If approved, the plant will be constructed at a time when there is a shortage of natural gas and when plants on the Point Lisas estate are operation at a whopping 30 per cent curtailment. The SABIC project does not include the construction of an acetic acid plant considered a key part in the strategy to make the country enter into the manufacture of pharmaceuticals. It is expected that the Cabinet will for a fourth week consider the matter today to decide if it should sign off on the deal.


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