Yesterday’s back-to-back news conferences, first by the Ministers of Finance and Energy, and then by the president-general of the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union, turned up too many contradictions for public comfort.
As it stands now, the two sides have come to the public with wildly differing accounts regarding their negotiations for the sale of the State-owned Pointe-a-Pierre oil refinery, which have now ended with the Government’s rejection of the bid from OWTU’s Patriotic Energies and Technologies. Given the conflicting information, it would be a mistake for the Government to simply ignore the OWTU’s disclosures and proceed as if its decision is a fait accompli that requires no further explanation. In light of the OWTU’s challenge to its statements, the Government risks a credibility gap and, worse, a charge of having acted in bad faith if it chooses not to address the union’s counter-claims.
Nothing that either minister said yesterday explains the Government’s about-turn on this issue. Above all, it must explain why the key sticking point for the Government was its lack of confidence that Patriotic had the US$500 million proposed purchase price cash for the refinery. Contrast this with its initial announcement in September 2019 when it declared Patriotic as the preferred bidder and generously declined the union’s offer of an upfront payment of US$700 million, volunteering instead a three-year moratorium on all payments of principal and interest towards the purchase of the refinery with a further ten years at a fair market interest rate to complete the US$700 million payment offered for the refinery.
What changed between then and now has never been addressed by the Government, but it would appear that it had to do with an undisclosed lien on the refinery and trading assets by bondholders and lenders who had financed the restructuring of Petrotrin’s debt to the tune of US$1.17 billion.
This is where the issue becomes seriously murky because it is hard to believe that the Minister of Finance, as Corporation Sole in whom State assets are vested, would not have been aware that the assets on sale were already pledged. The question it raises is why, knowing that the assets were pledged, did the Government not engage Patriotic’s US$700 million offer in September 2019, but choose instead to carry the negotiations down the dead-end path by offering a moratorium on payments?
We have said it before, and it bears repeating now—the refinery negotiations are no ordinary negotiations. They are deeply political, which is why the Government’s selection of Patriotic was used to advantage on the ruling party’s platform during the local government election of December 2019. It is also why the Opposition threatened to overturn the deal if it were returned to office in the general election of August 2020.
Thousands of former Petrotrin workers and their families as well as communities that grew up in the refinery’s economic shadow have a vested interest in the outcome of this issue. They, along with the rest of the country which foot the bill for the squandermania of successive governments at Petrotrin, deserve complete transparency on this issue.