Mon | Sep 25, 2017

Editorial: ESET, too, should continue

Published:Thursday | March 3, 2016 | 3:04 AM
Chairman of ESET, Dr Vin Lawrence

For the better part of two decades, Jamaica has meandered, procrastinated and bungled its way around initiatives to deliver cheaper energy to power consumers.

Most recent was the fiasco with Energy World International, an Australian/Hong Kong firm of questionable bona fides, which the Office of the Contractor General (OCG) ruled was parachuted late, and illegally, into the bidding for a 460-megawatt, gas-fired power plant, and whose tender ultimately collapsed with the refusal of the Inter-American Development to consider any financing request from it.

Before that, a consortium led by Belgium's Exmar Marine proposed to install a floating facility for the storage and regasification of liquefied natural gas (LNG), which the country expected to be the fuel of choice for its energy needs. That, too, floundered on the mismanagement of policymakers and other government strategists. The OCG found conflicts of interest in the development of the project and flaws in the process by which the preferred bidder was determined.

This quixotic approach to the country's power problems is clearly not one that Jamaica can afford, when it imports over 90 per cent of its energy needs, mostly in the form of the volatile commodity called oil, whose price, though now low, has, for most of the past decade, been expensive. Indeed, expensive oil, combined with old and inefficient infrastructure, helped to make the Jamaican economy uncompetitive. And there is no guarantee that the respite of recent months, as oil price tumbled, is sustainable.

Perhaps the most important development in Jamaica's energy sector since the first oil shock of 42 years ago was the establishment of the Energy Sector Enterprise Team (ESET) of government-appointed members, private sector representatives and public intellectuals. It is chaired by Vin Lawrence, a highly intelligent man and very capable doer with a reputation as a back-room fixer of the People's National Party, which lost the government in last week's general election. Its other members are equally skilled.

WILLING TO SERVE

ESET assumed roles previously the preserve of the Office of Utilities Regulation and the energy ministry of establishing policy for Jamaica's energy sector and a clear path towards its achievement. It has real accomplishments, including overseeing, to contract stage, the development by the power generator and monopoly electricity distributor, Jamaica Public Service (JPS), of a 190-megawatt, gas-fired power plant. ESET has also shepherded a project by the US firm, New Fortress, for the construction of LNG infrastructure in Jamaica. Others projects, under ESET's oversight, now appear eminently deliverable. Put another way, we sense order in Jamaica's energy sector.

These are gains that must not be reversed. Indeed, a delay, or worse, the abandonment of the JPS and the New Fortress projects, would be catastrophic for Jamaica's production and productivity, setting back the gains of the past years of bringing stability to the macroeconomy and a platform for future growth.

It is the custom in Jamaica when governments change for supporters of the losing party to relinquish or be removed from positions of leadership of important bodies and institutions. Dr Lawrence especially, and even ESET in its entirety, could be a casualty of this system as the new administration, understandably, puts its own people in place. If Dr Lawrence is willing to serve - and he should be invited to - he and the rest of the team should be allowed to continue, at least until the JPS facility is completed.