Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar

Over the last week, the country has been forced to waste much time debating the literal name-calling by some of T&T’s leading politicians.

Both a former Prime Minister and the current PM have weighed in, as have the planning minister and the organs of both major political parties.

I say wasted our time, not because the historical antecedents of how names came about in T&T and the experiences of Afro and Indo Trinibagonians are not important, in fact, it is very important in understanding much of what happens here, but it is unimportant because it detracts us from focusing on the names that matter, the names of the 1.3 million citizens who have to face the daily challenge of a country that is pre-collapsing.

The names of the 1.3 million nationals are important in a country where crime is commonplace, where our children engage in regular and increasingly dangerous fights, where the Minister of Finance tries to convince us that short-term spikes in energy prices are a sign of a long-term healthy economy and where the Ministers of Works and Public Utilities argue over who is responsible for the poor state of our roads, while no one actually fixes the problem.

Let me advise Dr Rowley and Mrs Persad-Bissessar of some other names they may want to argue about, the names of Exxon, Apache, Total, Petrobras, Woodside, and Chevron. All companies with deepwater pedigree that had no interest in T&T’s latest deepwater bid round.

While the two 70-year-old grandparents, who are in the sunset of their days, and who lead the two major political parties in T&T are busy calling each other names, we have had another setback to our energy sector, and the need to get as much out of what is surely a sunset industry.

That only four of the 17 blocks offered in the competitive bid round got any bids at all, and all those bids were from the two largest energy companies with operations in T&T, was a major disappointment.

Energy Minister Stuart Young was correct when he said he was not surprised by the poor showing at the bid round. He was right, but the narrative he tried to push was amateurish at best, bereft of any deep analysis and designed to put a plaster over a soar.

Young told the media: “As I said on the outset when we were going out for this bid round, I never expected there to be a lot of external interest because the way the global energy sector is set up now, that a lot of these multinational companies have been forced by their shareholders to take decisions that you cannot invest in new provinces.”

He emphasised that the matter needs to be seen in that context.

But the minister said the fact that four of the blocks were actually taken up by a consortium of bpTT and Shell “is a great positive” for the country.

“So, there’s nothing surprising there,” Young added.

Minister Young, let me give you some names in your Ministry who can help you truly understand what happened here. Selwyn Lashley, Helena Innis, Leroy Mayers, Penelope Bradshaw-Niles, Sandra Fraser. They would all tell you that a major challenge the bid round faced was the relative lack of exploration success by BHP, now Woodside, in finding oil in the deepwater.

It is true that they found a substantial amount of natural gas, but that is far more difficult to monetise and has a longer lead time in the development and recovery of investment dollars.

There are some other names Minister, I want to recommend to you. Talk to Kevin Ramnarine, Conrad Enil, Dr Lenny Saith, Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan, Eric Williams, and Andrew Jupiter, and they will tell you Minister that nothing in the energy sector happens in isolation, it is a continuum. They will tell you that the gas shortage we are facing today are as a result of failures dating back to 2003 when Eric Williams was unfortunately removed as Minister of Energy and Dr Saith, the then super Minister, as you no doubt consider yourself today, was too busy and the ministry lost focus.

They would tell you that there were other errors like placing too much acreage in a little-known Canadian outfit, of taking too long to negotiate PSCs, of the 2008 global meltdown, of the failure of your predecessor to move forward with a bid round for six years after taking office. Energy is not an easy portfolio and it’s only so far that bluster and winging it can go.

Last week I said in this very space that it was interesting that in his speech to the Energy Conference Dr Rowley chose to indicate the extent of the competition this country’s deepwater bid round faces.

The Prime Minister is right that there is serious competition for limited investment dollars and all of the areas that T&T is competing with are jurisdictions where the subsurface has had more success than we have recently had.

I wrote last week that in terms of the timing of the bid round, the world is moving firmly away from fossil fuels as pressure from society for renewables and green energy grows and the commitment from the world, as seen at COP 26, is to move away from oil and even to some extent, natural gas.

It means that the need for quick decision-making is crucial. This country has, in the last seven years, shown that it suffers from analysis paralysis. The Government says the right things, perhaps are intellectually aware that quicker decision making is required, but nothing they have done shows an ability to execute.

I have on many occasions used this space to urge the late Franklin Khan to offer more deepwater blocks for bids but, unfortunately, up until his death, he had not succeeded in bringing it forward.

The Government has now done so, in my view, four to five years late, and today, we will see whether the world has changed so much that the appetite for frontier drilling, with limited success, is so reduced that it does not lead to success, or if the companies are ready to bet on T&T. For the country’s sake, I hope it is the latter.

The second challenge of competitiveness is in many ways linked to the first and that of timely decision- making.

It is hard work and requires a lot of thought and analysis to make changes to the fiscal terms for the energy sector. This has to be so because of the extent of reliance of the general economy on the energy sector and the potential impact of changes on government revenue and the welfare of the country. When we talk about the energy sector, we only talk about it in terms of tens of millions of US dollars, both significant revenue and the lifeline to the rest of the open economy, reliant on the sector for the foreign exchange it uses to import goods and services.

For years, the Government has been saying it plans to reform the fiscal regime to make the sector more competitive. The rhetoric continued at this year’s energy conference.

T&T and its Government must see the private sector as its partner and not its competitor. There are too many people in the administration who are of the view that the Government must be in control of the economy to the point where it is more important to exert control and influence, even if it means stagnating economic growth.

This notion that high taxation is the only way to get maximum benefit for the country is mind-boggling. Surely, a smaller piece of a larger pie is as impressive as squeezing the lifeblood out of a sector of the economy.

It is no surprise that most of the country’s state enterprises are not net contributors to the economy, it is no surprise that the Government does not see anything wrong with monopolies and oligopolies as long as it is a state or state-aligned company.

We must embrace the concept of a free society, of a free open economy where the private sector takes the lead in economic development and the Government’s role is to regulate and facilitate.

Should the Government change its perspective then, it would see things like improving the ease of doing business and modernising customs and the port not as lofty goals but necessities.

It is only then it will see the digitalisation of the country and, in particular, the public sector, as urgent in preparing the country for a life of independence from the clutches of the Government and politicians as a way forward and an economic imperative.

Sustainability will only occur when, as a country, we take the steps to ensure that we have both an energy sector and an economy that operates on the real value for oil and gas—where the above the ground measures are such that they allow private capital to go to where a reasonable return can be made.

These are the things that must matter and names like Che, Makayla, Nathaniel, Mookesh and Ria matter.

These are children, people who should have more years ahead of them than behind them, children who want to, and deserve to inherit a country better than the one Dr Rowley and Mrs Persad-Bissessar threaten to leave them with.