It is noteworthy that the announcement of the planned shutdown of the refinery of Petrotrin has emerged in the week of the observance of Trinidad and Tobago’s 56th anniversary of political independence.
Petrotrin is both an actual and symbolic expression of the nation’s economic independence, since it is a flagship project and a core pursuit of our most prized and essential industry.
Its vision includes being ‘a high performing energy organisation, that delivers superior results to its shareholders every time, all the time’.
It is also the result of a dogged campaign by the people’s sector for localisation of the commanding heights of the economy.
Petrotrin embodies Trinidad and Tobago’s economic ambitions, our involvement in the most successful and vital sector in the global economic environment.
But Petrotrin is also the embodiment of poor corporate governance, expressed in bad policy decisions, wastage, corruption, nepotism - and more.
Today, the pride of our energy sector stands bereft of the ability to ‘deliver superior results to its shareholders’ and is a testament of monumental debts, amounting to $13 billion, a lack of viability, resulting from an absence of innovation and of weak and indifferent leadership.
Most of this took place under the management of two so-called energy czars, who have been honoured with the highest national awards and are lionised as icons.
Under their watch, the WGTL project cost taxpayers almost $3 billion, and yet the Rowley regime withdrew litigation for breach of fiduciary duties against the executive chairman and board of directors.
The cost of the gas optimisation project escalated from US$350 million to US$1.6 billion and was delayed by several years.
The ultra-low sulphur diesel plant set taxpayers back by TT$3.1 billion, from an original budget of TT$780 million and requires a further $2 billion to complete.
The structure of shame that is the ugly and incomplete corporate headquarters cost $170 million, and its land space was expanded from 60,000 to 168,000 square feet. It remains a painful and vivid reminder to thousands of motorists, on a daily basis, of mismanagement and squandermania of past PNM regimes.
There were other costly ventures, which led to staggering debt and to the downgrade of Petrotrin by international rating agencies.
Most of these projects were pioneered from 2003 to 2009, under successive PNM governments and when the current prime minister was an active and frontline member of the Cabinet.
Today, facing bond repayments of US$ 850mn in 2019 and US$750mn in 2022, with a wage bill in excess of twice the international average and adjudged by Solomon Associates, a leading global performance measurement company, as functioning in the bottom of the fourth quartile of the energy sector internationally, the future of the company’s operations look bleak.
The current state of the energy company is a legacy of the critical lack of national and industry planning, along with the absence of transparency and probity.
In fact, the Rowley regime shamelessly withdrew the legal action against the “energy czar” who masterminded the scandalous WGTL project and even kept him as an important member of the National Energy Council.
Some of the very directors involved in WGTL are still hovering around Petrotrin, providing critical advice and bleeding the organisation.
Ultimately, over 2000 employees and their families will be affected in addition to several ancillary businesses and their employees, which potentially can run into several thousand people being put on the breadline.
This will undoubtedly cause severe hardship and social and economic dislocation.
The critical question remains however is what has become of the Memorandum of Agreement signed in April 2018 between Petrotrin and the OWTU to establish a working committee comprising representatives of both parties that will work over the next 18 months to “address, resolve and agree on the four organisational structures, work processes and skills/competencies and manpower requirements which will make the company internationally competitive, thus ensuring its survival, sustainability and profitability.
This flagship venture has become a national financial albatross and the symbol of wretched governance of successive PNM regimes.
The collapse of the Petrotrin refinery is the result of systemic poor governance, also expressed at other loss-making State enterprises.
It is ironic that this is taking place while Trinidad and Tobago is celebrating national “independence.”
Vasant Bharath is a former MP and minister in the People’s Partnership government.