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Energy minister's dilemma no 'light' matter

Published:Wednesday | November 21, 2012 | 12:00 AM

George Davis, guest columnist

The energy minister, Phillip Paulwell, has taken a lot of stick from members of the advocacy group, Citizens United to Reduce Electricity (CURE), for the turn of events regarding the all-island licence granted to the Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS) by the People's National Party (PNP) administration in 2001.

The criticism, including the claim that the minister has betrayed the Jamaican consumer by supporting his Government's decision to appeal the ruling, is fully merited. The minister, whose popularity was in the early part of its growth phase at the time, effectively 'called down crosses' upon himself by hailing the July 30 Supreme Court ruling of Justice Bryan Sykes as a major decision in his own bid to bring competition to the energy sector.

The lawyer for CURE, Hugh Wildman, is on record saying Minister Paulwell told him privately that the court ruling will allow him and his Government to break up the JPS monopoly on the transmission and distribution of electricity.

With that admission, Paulwell effectively cut his own tamarind switch and asked CURE to flog him senseless after the reasons for the Government's decision to join the JPS in appealing the ruling were articulated in the House of Representatives by Attorney General Patrick Atkinson on November 6.

Gathering storm

But the wrath at Paulwell's impression of a 'two-side cutlass' is threatening to relegate the real issues, concerning the court ruling, to the sidelines. Principal among those real issues is the fact that in reality, the landmark victory secured by CURE in the Supreme Court would create an unprecedented crisis in every atom of the Jamaican society.

If, as the court found, the JPS's all-island licence was indeed invalid, and the decision should be enforced, what would happen to the company's operations? At what point would the JPS turn off the lights, send its employees home, and call time on its business interest in Jamaica?

What would Portia Simpson Miller, her Government and the citizenry do when JPS, with justification, demanded the return of the billions of dollars invested in its business, on the premise of being a monopoly, since 2001?

How would Government deal with the fact that it now has to foot a massive bill for a licence that it granted to the utility provider to meet the country's energy needs?

For anyone in the dark about why the attorney general was moved to advise the Government to appeal the ruling, I ask only that you think very carefully on these things.

We should agree that shutting down the sole transmitter and distributor of electricity won't translate into lower light bills for us, the hard-up and long-suffering JPS customers. If such a ruling were handed down against a company similar to the JPS today in, say, England, where Wildman found a 1913 court ruling to strengthen his arguments in the court, I could understand and accept.

No competition here

But England today, with its 42 counties, has more than 70 companies which supply customers with electricity or a combination of electricity and gas. Shutting down one of so many providers simply allows the customer to call in npower or a Sainsbury's Energy to supply their electricity needs. That, unfortunately, is not the reality in Jamaica.

In all this, one must sympathise with the members of CURE. Theirs is, and continues to be, a gallant effort to do something about the crippling cost of our residential and commercial electricity bills. Hugh Wildman is a 'square-shooting hombre' who has done well by them to convince Justice Sykes to side with their argument.

But CURE must accept that their victory is not the silver bullet which can stop Vlad Dracula in his tracks. I am impressed by Minister Paulwell's hustle since his return to Government, but must caution him against playing too much to the gallery. It was his desire to ride the wave of anti-JPS sentiment and support CURE's efforts at monopoly-busting that contributed to us being here.

It was he, behind closed doors, who told Wildman and members of CURE that the ruling secured was a facilitator for competition in the energy sector. It was he who, publicly and privately, supported CURE in its belief that it had won a Grammy, when in real terms it had won only a Bammy. Selah.

George Davis is a journalist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and george.s.davis@hotmail.com.