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HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM

Published: 
Sunday, April 16, 2017

On April 13, 1970, Astronaut Jim Lovell repeated something that Astronaut Jack Swigert, on the Apollo 13 spacecraft, told Mission Control in Houston: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

In 1995, a movie by the name, Houston We Have A Problem, based on a misquote of Jim Lovell was made. My column today is based on the title of the movie in relation to Prime Minister Rowley’s recent visit to Houston for talks with some of the world’s leading energy companies.

Shortly after the Prime Minister departed Houston, the OWTU and JTUM leader Ancel Roget responded to a decision by bpTT to withdraw the final construction of its Angelin platform from TOFCO in La Brea and sent it to be completed elsewhere by saying that BP could “take its platform and go.”

In a statement, bpTT said: “bpTT remains fully committed to maximising local content in all our operations, however, given the compressed project timelines and other competitiveness factors for the Angelin project, local fabrication is no longer a feasible option.”

It was relocating the project elsewhere. The “Houston we have a problem” aspect of this scenario is that T&T is beginning to have competitiveness issues in the energy sector with this decision on the Angelin platform.

Prime Minister Rowley’s response to the comment by Roget was made on the CNC3 programme The Morning Brew with host Hema Ramkissoon last Wednesday when he said: “That is not really the kind of thing that causes somebody in a BP boardroom or elsewhere to say Trinidad is the place we want to put our money.”

In conceding that he was aware that BP was going to pull the Angelin project out of La Brea before he even arrived in Houston, the Prime Minister is telegraphing to the nation that he went there to negotiate, not from a position of strength, but rather to seek concessions in asking BP to reconsider its decision.

He conceded that T&T “is still a free country and leaders choose to lead their followers the way they see fit.” This column was prepared before any response was made by Roget.

The various private sector bodies have condemned Roget’s statement outright saying that it does not bode well for the competitiveness of the country’s energy sector and transmits an air of militancy in the industrial relations climate that is not attractive to foreign investment.

The Prime Minister did not hide the fact that he was aware of that reality when he said that companies like BP “don’t owe us anything , what they look for is the best outcome for their shareholders.”

The way that this discussion is emerging is that there is an ever-widening gap between the state control of the economy model and the foreign investment free market economy model. As that gap continues to widen in these difficult economic times, the Government has to make a choice between one model or the other.

Having just completed a round of discussions and negotiations in Houston where he was unable to convince BP to change its mind on the Angelin project, he must know that he is up against an industrial relations climate that has the potential to diminish his efforts on behalf of the country.

He told Hema Ramkissoon that if he was sitting in front of Roget, he “would have no difficulty telling him it was not a helpful statement.” In the context of the MOU between the PNM and JTUM that he signed with Roget on August 27, 2015, one gets the sense that the strain of holding it together is becoming extremely difficult to bear.

In the same breath that Roget made his “take your platform and go” remark, he also said that Rowley is walking a “Kamla road” and that he could suffer the same consequences as the former Prime Minister insofar as he aided and abetted her electoral defeat in 2015. That is the closest that he has come to tearing up the MOU, but at the time of writing that had not occurred.

The investors in Houston are looking at what is happening on the industrial relations front in this country, especially in the energy sector. The unions are not going to back down from their firm ideological beliefs that are not welcoming to foreign investment unless there are industrial relations agreements that they are comfortable with. That attitude has been cultivated over decades of struggle on their part to arrive at a place that they feel fits comfortably into the Williams narrative of the PNM’s Chaguaramas Declaration of 1970.

The challenge for Rowley today is to find a way to slacken the rigidity of that firmly held PNM model of state control of the economy at a time when the energy sector globally has changed and this country has suddenly found itself so uncompetitive that foreign companies will not come here for meetings, but rather he had to go there to meet them.

The underlying storyline of this emerging scenario is simply nothing more than “Houston we have a problem.”

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