In what is being seen as a major signal that the elections season is on in Trinidad, the main opposition United National Congress (UNC) is moving to scuttle the sale of the island’s major oil refinery to a group led by a powerful labor union because the party feels that the body was given a sweetheart deal by the administration of Prime Minister, Keith Rowley.

The UNC is not openly saying so, but it has been implying that Rowley’s governing People’s National Movement (PNM) has favored the Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OTWU) because the union is closer to the PNM than the UNC and a successful sale of the firm to the union could win the PNM votes ahead of general elections by next fall.

Authorities closed the Petrotrin Oil refinery in southern Trinidad last year, contending that it had been losing billions of dollars annually, was severely overstaffed and had racked up billions in unpaid debts. Officials also contended that daily oil production in Trinidad is so low that oil had to be imported from abroad to keep equipment in use.

About 3,000 permanent and part time employees were sent home. Businesses and nearby homes which had depended on a functioning refinery lost millions in daily patronage. Officials say deep medical depression resulted.

The facility was therefore put out to international tender, with Rowley’s cabinet saying in the end that a group put together by the OTWU had come up with the best and most promising bid and was given the green light to raise finances and prepare to restart operations. The refinery’s closure had pushed a number of neighboring countries like Guyana and Barbados to find alternative suppliers for oil and petroleum products.

The UNC in the meantime, is moving to court to obtain an injunction blocking the sale of the refinery to Patriotic Energies and Technologies Limited even as it rushes to meet deadlines for submitting its business plan, complete with financing details.

The UNC says it is mad about the fact that Minister of Finance, Colm Imbert had not seen it fit to pass the deal through the joint parliamentary select energy committee for scrutiny. It charges that that committee had not met in 18 months, a convenient development that allowed authorities to avoid scrutiny. The UNC could lose valuable votes if such a mega project, led by a local union and not a foreign, white-led group, goes ahead and revives district economies in the politically sensitive southern Trinidad.

But Rowley has been fighting back. He told a public meeting in Trinidad in the past week that UNC concerns were aimed at scuttling the deal entirely. The UNC has suggested that such a major deal should be held back until elections, not expected before next September.

“The best bid won and the OWTU was the best bid and we are quite prepared to do what we have to do to get it done and get the refinery restarted. The same way they chase away the Sandals project is the same way they are trying to undermine the OWTU,” Rowley said.

For its part, union leader Ancel Roget called a press conference at midweek to defend the union’s purchase of the facility, suggesting that a number of communities like San Fernando, Marabella, Gasparillo and others could spring back to life in a big way with a recommencement if activities.

“The restart of the refinery would involve turnaround works, refurbishment, a thorough inspection and repairs of all of the plants to make sure that when those plants start it can run for a considerable period of time with optimum reliability so that we will guarantee fuel products for the country,” he said, waving around documents.

“To be able to do that, before those plants are operationalized and the refinery is restarted, we have to conduct extensive work to the tune of about $500 million, which is going to be circulating in the local economy. The upgrades would require welders, masons, electricians, carpenters, plumbers, laborers, contractors and sub-contractors, scaffolders, mechanics, riggers, safety personnel, security and equipment suppliers.“

The injunction is expected to be heard shortly but it appears that the OWTU is in the saddle and might well withstand the current political onslaught from the opposition.

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