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Raffique Shah

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Day of moaning for Petrotrin

By Raffique Shah
December 5, 2018

During last Friday's unofficial "Day of Moaning" for the official demise of State-owned oil giant Petrotrin, I detected more than a hint of hypocrisy among the moaners. I must confess that your not-so-humble scribe was prominently positioned amidst the thousands of Trini-Pharisees who had saved their saddest faces and rehearsed their most somber vocal tones for the tragic occasion.

I admit that mine was an ego issue, one in which my wounded pride provoked extreme prejudice against my fellow-Trinis for having shamed me, for having shattered my dreams of seeing us as a people take control of the commanding heights of the economy, and successfully steer them to take their place alongside the best such enterprises in the world.

When we campaigned in the 1970s for Texaco to go, to leave the local oil industry, especially the massive refinery at Pointe-a-Pierre, for native professionals and dedicated and experienced workers to manage and operate them, we thought we could dance like dragons on the global energy stage, show them a thing or three about our prowess in exploring and exploiting our hydrocarbon resources.

We didn't know then that our politicians would pollute the newly-acquired industries with political implants who did not know the difference between an oil rig and a bunch of cooking figs, As far back as then, because we had one of the oldest commercial oil industries in the world, many of our brightest sons and daughters had studied hydrocarbons at the most prestigious universities and technical schools abroad. Scores of them were scooped up by the oil majors and worked in oilfields and refineries across the world. Some became innovators on the technical side. Others mastered petroleum economics and finance.

But while their services were in demand elsewhere, relatively few found places in the local industry. Over the years, many of them were blacklisted by parties-in-power because they stayed aloof of politics. They saw persons way below their competencies land plum positions while they were relegated to the drudgery and poor pay scales of the public service and academia.

It was politics, too, that turned once-motivated workers into the lazy-syndrome, damaging the work ethic such that those who chose to be productive were ostracised by their colleagues. Politics, and poor management, often indistinguishable from each other, led to neglect of the plants, the equipments and environments they worked in.

The refinery and tank farms rusted-their neglect could be seen by the public. What we could not see was the sad state of offshore drilling platforms and vital pipelines. It was almost as if there was a conspiracy to expose the ineptitude of locals, show that they could not run a large oil company the way "de White man" did.

Meanwhile, benefits, wages and salaries rocketed to levels way out of synch with the national norm, widening income inequality and negatively impacting Petrotrin's balance sheet. Add to these woes rampant corruption at all levels of the company, from captain to crook, and what we had was a disaster waiting to happen. So am I angry that the commanding heights of the economy, embodied in Petrotrin (and Caroni Ltd), have crashed to a disastrous end? Damn right I am. All those who brought the once-powerful giant to its knees ought to be made to pay for their sins. But that's not about to happen. Instead, they more than likely will have been handsomely rewarded with Lotto-like severance or retirement packages. Taxpayers will foot the multi-billion-dollar bills they've left behindľ$25 billion or more, some economists estimate. And you know what makes me angrier? Some foreign company will return, lease the refinery from government, employ persons who will be made to work, really work, for salaries far lower than what Petrotrin paid, and little or no benefits, and they who squandered the national patrimony will rush for the jobs. It is to out eternal shame that we could create the downstream industrial wonderland that is the Point Lisas Estate, that we were pioneers in the West with Atlantic LNG, but we could not run an oil refinery as a profitable enterprise. That really hurts me, as surely as it must make men such as the late George Weekes, Joe Young and Ramcharitar "Bull" Lalchan, among the pantheon of unionists and internationalists who fought for us to control our country and its destiny, turn in their graves.

Not just that: but those who sympathised with the richly-compensated architects of Petrotrin's demise will soon have to pay realistic prices for fuels, either if we continue to import them, or if a new operator takes over the refinery. That's a simple case of dollars and sense, simple arithmetic. The wealthiest Arab oil-producing countries have removed subsidies, so why not debt-ridden T&T?

The only prerequisite to the implementation of this measure is an efficient public transport system-and I have written extensively on that: bring on bus rapid transit (BRT). It can be phased in, in the busiest corridors, in a few months. But to continue subsidising motor-fuels is fiscal madness.

The wages of the sins of the comparative few who raped and plundered Petrotrin will be an unending, multi-billion-dollar purgatory for generations yet unborn.

I wish I could write "here endeth". I cannot. I fear our oil and debt woes have only just begun.

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