Thu | Dec 8, 2016

Biden doesn't get it

Published:Friday | January 30, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Peter Espeut

Last Monday, US Vice-President Joe Biden met with Caribbean political leaders and energy experts at an energy summit in Washington. I wonder if VP Biden thought he was teaching Sunday school.

He made it clear that the purpose of the meeting was to drum up business for the US private sector: "Over the last 10 years, tens of millions of dollars have been pledged and invested. But we don't have nearly enough to show for it. So it can't just be about money. It has to be about doing business the right way.

Government money and targeted international aid can and must be available, is helpful, but the private sector is where the money is. That's why the primary goal of this summit isn't to put up another solar panel, or sign another gas contract. It's to help you create the conditions where your countries can attract private-sector investment." (Check the White House website for the full speech).

Jamaica has not been singing from the same hymn sheet as the US. To solve our energy crisis, we have turned - not to the US private sector, or any other - but to entities wholly owned by the governments of Venezuela and China. This has weakened the influence of the USA in Central America and the Caribbean. The Caribbean Energy Security Initiative of the US government is an effort to turn back the clock, to re-establish US hegemony in the region.

I am not sure the US effort has much chance of success. The PetroCaribe arrangement with Venezuela offers loans to buy oil at very concessionary interest rates (1%), as well as an opportunity to access the ALBA-Caribe Fund for social programmes and development projects such as the construction of refineries and power plants and the development of alternative sources of energy.

The US initiative does offer concessionary loans from the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and grants from the US Agency for International Development, but I am not sure the terms are as attractive. The US private sector wants to invest in Jamaica to make a profit for themselves; one got the impression the Venezuelans were putting themselves to some disadvantage and inconvenience to help us.

STRANGE HAPPENING

It is strange to hear the USA - who until now has refused to sign any binding international climate-change agreement limiting greenhouse gas emissions - advocating renewable energy solutions over the use of fossil fuels.

Last Monday, VP Biden said: "Let's start with oil prices, now under $50 a barrel. This gives governments a little space to breathe, and it's likely it's going to remain relatively low for at least the near term, the next several years. There's an old saying: The best time to fix a roof is when the sun is shining. The best time to fix a roof is when the sun is shining. The sun is shining now, figuratively speaking. The time is now.

"Renewable energy is affordable. We heard discussions downstairs just how radically the cost has been reduced for renewable energy and how it is producing competitive per-kilowatt hours. The cost of developing wind and solar energy has fallen by 50 per cent just in the last four years. We're starting to see those technologies outcompete real coal, oil-fired generation in places like Brazil without any subsidies at all".

So, Biden is saying, don't listen to the proposals of China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) to build coal-fired power plants in Jamaica: go for renewables - solar, wind, and biomass.

Will the Jamaican Government listen? Will this administration take the help from the USA and abandon their new-found Chinese friends? Not without some other arm-twisting, it seems.

Maybe the most naive part of Biden's presentation was where he said that, if we want US help, "First and foremost, you have to deal with corruption. You need to be choosing projects because they're the most competitive." Remember how the IDB withdrew funding for the 360MW project because, they said, the procurement process was flawed?

May I invite you to consult the release of 29 July 2009 published on the website of the World Bank; it begins: "The World Bank today announced the debarment of China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) Limited, and all its subsidiaries, for fraudulent practices under Phase 1 of the Philippines National Roads Improvement and Management Project. Under the sanction, CCCC is ineligible to engage in any road and bridge projects financed by the World Bank Group until January 12, 2017." The Jamaican public needs to know that CHEC is a subsidiary of CCCC.

Has it occurred to VP Biden that one of the reasons the Jamaican Government will avoid taking funding from the USA is because they want to avoid both environmental scrutiny and the safeguards against corruption this will imply?

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and environmentalist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.