A New Chapter for Trinidad and Tobago

P1070144
Petrotrin at night, courtesy Gavin, made available through this Creative Commons License.

I’ve never written about the oil and gas industry. I’m certainly no expert – there are plenty of people claiming to be with or without credentials, and I don’t wish to intrude upon their space.

Oil and gas, after all, is a messy affair. In Trinidad and Tobago, even more so since it has and continues to depend so much on this sector for income – something that I do write about in the context of diversifying the economy through technology, which in turn could finance further development in those areas. That’s crazy thinking in Trinidad and Tobago for anyone in a position to do anything about it.

So first I’m not going to write about Trinidad and Tobago. I’m going to write about a place few from Trinidad and Tobago have ventured to before I bring it all back to Trinidad and Tobago.

The place?

Beloit, Wisconsin Watertower
Photo by me, July, 2010.

Beloit, Wisconsin.

This was a place that Margaret Mead, a renowned cultural anthropologist, once called ‘America in microcosm’. Many families there once worked for a company some have heard of – General Motors (GM).

The nearby GM assembly plant was open in 1919, and lasted until 2009 – 90 years. So it was pretty much settled that as children grew up, they’d get a job at GM. In 1970, the peak employment of that plant was 7,000.

When I got to Beloit in 2010 or so, it was a very different Beloit. I didn’t get to see it on the upswing – I am too young for that – and I didn’t see it dwindle. I saw the results – a small economy within Wisconsin that had high unemployment and all the stuff that goes with it.

An interesting and unrelated thing to note is that the city fines people who don’t keep their lawns mowed or their houses painted. This had resulted in even small time criminals maintaining nice lawns, and some pretty annoyingly colored houses as a form of rebellion.

The economy was hyper-dependent on GM. And I expect that even now, the recovery from that weaning was difficult.

Now, Beloit was in a quandary when GM shut down operations in the area. They likely still are.

Downtown Beloit Sunset
Downtown Beloit at Sunset, also by me. 2012.

Yet, they have one of the most highly rated Main Streets, and in 2015 Milken Institute Best-Performing Cities Index ranked the Janesville-Beloit metropolitan area #4 by how well they created and sustained jobs and economic growth.

I don’t know much about what happened when I left – what I do know is that Beloit was in trouble. And I saw opportunity for technology companies there – and some showed up, though I’m not certain how that all worked out.

But I do know one thing. Beloit’s still there.

Petrotrin oil refinery
Petrotrin Oil Refinery at Night, made available by Marc Aberdeen through this Creative Commons License.

Back to Trinidad and Tobago and Petrotrin: There are parallels with Beloit, and there are some things that are not. For example, Petrotrin is only a part of the oil and gas sector in Trinidad and Tobago – and also, it’s government owned – though the Wikipedia article presently discusses Petrotrin in a past tense.

This morning, I watched Curtis Williams say that the Trinidad and Tobago government bought the refinery, now being closed according to a leaked internal memo, to save 3,000 jobs. He went on to say that this seemingly remained the main thrust of what Petrotrin did in later years – profitability was never really seen as important.

Now, some people talk about this as a business – as they should. Still, the government buying the refinery was a risky proposition for the long term. But politics requires jobs – and every political party that has been in power has kept that ball in the air.

That ball in the air is now a can being kicked around on the ground now.

And so, the conversations about privatization I’ve seen have been lacking in understanding that it’s simply a bad business proposition for a private entity to run. The cost of production is, from most reports, too high.

Now, to be fair, I didn’t dig into the financials – I could, but if I dig into the books of any company, I’m only looking at what is reported – and no one has reported anything good.

So the question is whether it’s worth keeping at all. There’s enough inefficiency that it should be a wake up call; to me it seems an indictment of a culture that allowed it to happen – something no one in Trinidad and Tobago wants to hear.

But if they look carefully, they can see it.

I will point out that Beloit, Wisconsin has found ways to recover – and I’m pretty sure there are at least parts of it that are unpopular. Beloit survives. So will Trinidad and Tobago. But there are necessary differences between what they were and what they must become.

The time for thinking about economic diversification is over. With a lowering interest in oil and gas technologies, it’s time for the Government of Trinidad and Tobago – as well as it’s stakeholders, every citizen, to start working on that diversification.

Want things to change? Read more. Think more. Think about repercussions of actions at even the most personal of levels – there is opportunity in even the most dire of circumstances, if only the Government and people would get out of their own way.

Or you could paint your house a bright orange in protest – an appropriate mix of red and yellow political filters – and hope for the best.

I’m not a big fan of orange, yellow or red.

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