This article was originally published by the Sunday Guardian by a Guest Author and was republished by the Energy Chamber

The contract itself may not set the pulse racing: La Brea’s Tofco has been given the go ahead to build the jacket for bpTT’s Cassia C offshore development – a welcome but much smaller contract than the Juniper project a few years ago, when both the jacket and the topside were built in T&T.

But the good news behind the deal goes a lot further than the dozens of new jobs it will generate in La Brea. If all else goes well, it could be the beginning of a more positive phase for those working in T&T’s oil and gas sector.

Above all, it can represent a turning point, following the lows of T&T losing the contract for the construction of Angelin’s platform (which went to Mexico instead) as bpTT feared threats to the project due to industrial relations issues.

It was bpTT’s decision that led OWTU’s president, Ancel Roget, to famously tell the oil company to ‘take your platform and go’ instead of fighting hard to keep the project here, bringing much needed cash investment and jobs.

Not that one of the most costly and irresponsible exercises of arrogance and hubris in the history of trade unionism in Trinidad and Tobago came as a surprise, given Mr Roget’s track record. The same destructive approach to industrial relations also played a major part in making Petrotrin financially unviable, leading to its closure and the mouthballing of the only major refinery in the Caricom area.

Given lessons from the past, it is clear that bpTT is treading this path carefully. Cassia C’s topside (and a much bigger piece of work) will again be built in Mexico before it is shipped to T&T.

There is a long way to go but the jacket’s contract can become a turning point for us all in T&T.

First, the government itself has been spending time and effort in La Brea in an attempt to try and prevent a repeat of disturbances and protests that have affected other operations there in the recent past. It is difficult to understand why communities struggling to find jobs seem to actively engage with disruptive actions which inevitably reduce the potential for job creations in the area.

Second, because this is a key moment for the OWTU to show it really cares about jobs in the sector and the wellbeing of its members. Just as over 4,000 people lost their jobs at Petrotrin (and partly down to OWTU’s poor behaviour), it ought to think carefully about how it will deal with these new projects (irrespective of whether it is directly involved with the employers or not).

Now is the time for OWTU to design a clear, comprehensive and clever skills and development plan, working closely with employers and government to guarantee that Trinidad and Tobago energy sector workers ready to succeed in the 21st century.

If they get it right, the prize is a much-needed renewal of T&T’s energy sector not only as a producer of oil and gas but also as a provider of services home and abroad. And to get this right, timing is everything.

Just as T&T’s oil and gas output is destined to drop as our reserves are exhausted, our Caricom partner, Guyana, begins to show considerable potential. Given our Caricom relationship and physical proximity, T&T is in a great position to be the major service provider to our neighbour’s fledgling energy industry, from construction to consultancy, the potential for jobs and income is considerable.

However, Guyana’s jackpot is far from guaranteed. For us to win contracts there, we must compete for contracts with global service providers, as North American, European and Asian businesses are already securing a piece of the action. And competitive neighbours such as Mexico (again), Colombia and Brazil, with their own major energy sectors, no doubt are also eyeing the opportunities in Guyana (and so would Venezuela if they were not busy with their own mess).

We have the competitive advantage that physical proximity and preferred Caricom conditions provide. But those are quickly lost if productivity remains low, unreliability is the norm and industrial relations continue to be seen as some of the most damaging in the world.

Trinidad and Tobago can and must be the service hub for the energy sector in the region, with the Gulf of Paria giving us a natural advantage and existing facilities being an added bonus.

We also have the skills and the capacity to build on them in quality and number. And, despite the noisy but mostly unfounded protestations to the contrary by the OWTU, we also have the right health and safety culture (with the right certification) that allows us to compete beyond our shores.

The next moves by La Brea residents, the OWTU leadership, the government and Tofco itself will have an impact that will go well beyond the building of a metal structure. Consciously or not, they may be helping build a whole new T&T. Better handle it with care.