In this important election year, EnergyNow talks to opposition leader Dr. Keith Rowley about his ideas, policies and strategies for the T&T energy sector

Dr. Keith Christopher Rowley was born in Mason Hall, Tobago, on Oct. 24, 1949. After achieving the prestigious Sylvan Bowles Scholarship at Bishop’s High School, Rowley went on to obtain his B.Sc. in Geology and Geography, with honours, from the University of the West Indies (UWI) at Mona, Jamaica.

Rowley continued his studies with an M.Sc. in Volcanic Stratigraphy and a doctorate in Geology, specialising in Geochemistry, at UWI St. Augustine. He later became the Head of the Seismic Research Unit at UWI St. Augustine and also held the position of General Manager at state-owned National Quarries Company Limited.

Rowley’s political career started in 1981, when he contested the Tobago West seat. He has been a Member of the House of Representatives for Diego Martin West since 1991 and has served at Cabinet level at various posts, including Minister of Agriculture, Lands and Marine Resources, Minister of Planning and Development, Minister of Housing and Minister of Trade and Industry.

Following the PNM’s election defeat in 2010, Dr. Rowley was appointed leader of the opposition and will represent the party in the 2015 elections.

Is Trinidad too dependent on its energy sector and, if so, is the solution to diversify away from energy or strengthen this vital industry?

The answer would have to be yes, Trinidad is too dependent on its energy sector. While we are grateful that we do have hydrocarbons to bolster our existence on the islands, it makes us vulnerable, exposed to the vagaries of the global energy industry.

We will need to do both, diversify to other industry sectors and strengthen the energy sector. We don’t want to give up on the hydrocarbon sector just in order to build other industries; however, we do need to diversify into other sectors to create a cushion against global fluctuations and to maximise our national effort.

Over time, we have been very dependent on hydrocarbons. They have served us very well in building our infrastructure and giving us the quality of life that we now enjoy. Now, we must move into other industry sectors and, of course, we can also diversify within the sphere of hydrocarbon use.

All our future plans for the sector depend on that upstream growth. The midstream and the downstream depend on the upstream, and without continued growth in the upstream, stagnation will threaten the sector’s very existence.

We see continued hydrocarbon development in Guyana, Suriname, and offshore potential in Barbados. How would you assess the current government’s success in positioning Trinidad as the regional hub for both expertise and downstream facilities?

I would not give the government very high marks in that regard. The only area the government has made positive change are the steps taken to ensure Trinidad remains attractive for deepwater investment. Deep water is an area of interest for the upstream and drilling is set to commence soon. We expect to see positive results there in the next seven to 10 years.

Aside from the deepwater developments, the government has not maintained Trinidad and Tobago’s position as an area of investment interest. We are particularly concerned with future decision-making on downstream issues. The government has been upfront about cancelling contracts, which has created a climate of instability.

In terms of using diplomatic means to bolster our position in the region, the government has been very insulting to these territories, putting us in danger of losing those markets.

The government has not taken steps to bring Barbados, Grenada, Guyana and Suriname into our sphere of influence in such a way that as they move into hydrocarbon exploration, they do not look to Trinidad as a big brother and a partner. We appear to be left out of these discussions, both in exploration and market arrangements for the future.

So is the problem a diplomatic one, or one of creating an attractive industry environment for partnership?

The government’s utilisation of diplomacy and our CARICOM alliance have not been sufficiently brought into play. The PNM believe there ought to be a Memorandum of Understanding between Barbados and Trinidad.

Offshore acreage in Barbados could benefit greatly from use of Trinidad’s technology and experience. We could go in on this together, assisting Barbados in exploring hydrocarbon potential, to the benefit of both nations. It is an area Trinidad should be perusing both as a CARICOM neighbour and as partners.

While politically unstable, Venezuela is the region’s hydrocarbon powerhouse. What might your leadership do to increase the chance of an energy-driven partnership between Trinidad and Venezuela?

Trinidad has a refinery that is short of raw material, and nothing can harm us in an arrangement where some Venezuelan crude is refined in Trinidad.

We spent a lot of money upgrading our refinery, so we can produce products that can find their way into external markets without problems. Without ample supply of crude to that refinery, we cannot turn the amounts of profit we should expect.

A conversation with Venezuela along those lines would do no harm to Trinidad. However, Venezuela has their own designs in the Caribbean and PetroCaribe’s model may not lend itself to such an arrangement.

We do not know if PetroCaribe is a long-term alliance, and considering Venezuela’s current difficulties, they may not want to review it for some time.

One model we are looking at in Trinidad is to provide manufactured goods to Venezuela in exchange for something we can use, such as hydrocarbons. These discussions need to happen to see if we can find an arrangement that works.

Is it just a case of opening up those lines of communication, or is the social and political climate in Venezuela also a barrier?

Decision-making is traditionally slow in Venezuela, and some might describe the spectrum of decision-making in Venezuela as “political instability,” but it is an area we can only explore if we are in the conversation. We need to find out what the Venezuelans can be convinced to do in their own interests and our interests as well.

There is a shortage of materials available in eastern Venezuela, which is very close to us in Trinidad, where we have a very good manufacturing base looking for new markets.

The question is, can we provide Venezuela with useful materials and can they pay us, and the answer is yes. I believe we can find the right arrangements.

Technical discussions need to happen between technical people, on a foundation of political agreements. The president of Venezuela visited Trinidad recently and I anxiously waited to hear that something positive was underway in the Loran Manatee cross-border fields, but we heard nothing new on it.

Opposition Leader Dr. Keith Rowley at a recent event sponsored by the Energy Chamber.  Photo by Mark Gellineau

Opposition Leader Dr. Keith Rowley at a recent event sponsored by the Energy Chamber. Photo by Mark Gellineau

Be it local production or imported hydrocarbons, there is a supply problem. What might a change to PNM leadership do to subvert that course and change the situation?

The first thing we have to do is to acknowledge that there’s a problem. Then the first part of the solution is to make best use of what production we have currently, and then we can determine the best prospects for getting more.

There are a number of things the government needs to take the lead on, and these conversations have not been taking place, not least the gas contracts coming up for renewal in two to three years’ time.

We don’t want the government of Trinidad and Tobago to be renegotiating these contracts on a cliff, when these are contracts ending; that is simply bad business.

What should Trinidad be doing to react to this global shift due to the developments in the U.S. and the shale revolution?

Trinidad needs to remain competitive and attractive to investment. The U.S. expansion into hydrocarbon production has removed our strongest market and created a very strong competitor for a number of our other markets in the region.

Trinidad needs to maintain its position as a major power in the Caribbean in the face of strong competition, and try also to maintain itself as a supplier of specific hydrocarbon-derived products to the U.S.

Does that mean new export markets? Strengthening regional ties? How can Trinidad compete?

Fortunately, our plants are largely amortised, as opposed to the predominantly new plants in the States, but we must also find new markets. Had we not found new markets for our LNG, we would have been in huge problems with the U.S. price right now.

We are surviving on our LNG revenues right now because of these temporary markets; we don’t know how long we can maintain those markets.

Is it the same for ammonia, urea and other products?

Yes, our production of urea and ammonia was a result of the high demand in the U.S., and we were perfectly positioned to supply that market. However, an even better location for fertiliser-related products is directly adjacent to the cornfield, and shale gas has allowed that to happen.

We need to take action to remain competitive. We cannot just give up those markets, but also we must seek out new markets.

How do you assess the current governance of Petrotrin and the NGC, and what might you do differently under your leadership?

The first thing the PNM would do is position qualified and honest people to run the NGC and Petrotrin. The current government has failed in many areas of managing the hydrocarbon sector, but above all, they have failed in their choice of people running our national companies.

Those people have become the poster boys for corruption, mismanagement and incompetence. That came about as a result of nepotism in the political experience and has led to these national agencies being severely hampered in their contribution to national development.

We are now encountering new scandals by the hour, making headlines in the newspapers every day about mismanagement and corruption.

Opposition Leader Dr. Keith Rowley addresses Energy Chamber members at a recent energy luncheon.  Photo by Mark Gellineau

Opposition Leader Dr. Keith Rowley addresses Energy Chamber members at a recent energy luncheon. Photo by Mark Gellineau

Do you believe the energy industry lost confidence in the government, and how quick and extreme would changes be under your leadership in this regard?

I wouldn’t say they have lost confidence in our government, but their confidence has been severely shaken, and those who truly understand what is happening are very concerned.

The PNM would not make changes for the sake of making changes, we would make changes where change is needed in particular areas. One of the most worrisome elements to us is that the government of Trinidad and Tobago, through these agencies, need to competently address the gas-pricing issue.

If there are structural changes that need to be made in order to maintain our competitiveness and support the functioning of the energy sector, then we need to make those changes for the sake of the country.

If we fail in that regard, then certain decisions can be made that would harm us, because of our inability to adapt to the evolving market.

If the current government stays in power, do you see these problems being resolved?

If the current government stays in power, I do not see these problems being resolved, I see them worsening. The current problems are driven by general irresponsibility and an intention to be corrupt. The current practices, which have become legendary under this administration, are not going to go away and we will only get more of the same.

This is apparent from the Cabinet level down to the state enterprises. It is not an individual problem; it is an administrative problem. There is a belief that the appointment gives them the right to enrich themselves, their families and their favoured few, and that is turning the country upside-down.

Trinidad is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, per capita, in the world. How much of a concern should that be?

Of course that is something that we should be concerned about, but I don’t think it should be overplayed, nor should it carry any extra burden in this area. Our energy sector maintains world-scale best practice, and while it does carry a certain carbon footprint, our small population exaggerates that statistic.

How much does the state of the energy sector make a difference? If the industry was free of other problems, would environmental issues be a higher priority?

We should always be looking at the environment. As a matter of fact, the worst time to have an environmental accident is when you are struggling and you don’t have the resources to deal with it. We should always be cognisant that we are impacting the environment, and we should seek to minimise those impacts.

What would be your final message for the energy sector?

I simply want to say that Trinidad and Tobago, as small as we are, has been a significant player in the energy market for decades. We do not see a future where we step back from hydrocarbons, in fact, the PNM believes that within two terms of government, our output from the hydrocarbon sector would be significantly improved.