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Wednesday 22 May 2019
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A Petrotrin story



BETWEEN November 2003 and October 2005, I accepted a contractual communications role in the Corporate Communications Department at Petrotrin.

I was not core business, something the men spinning oil-slicked heavy metal would never hesitate to remind “office people” of, but I got to see a lot of it, and to read the stories that were offered up about the company’s operations.

This is what I found there.

Petrotrin has always had serious structural problems, running all the way back to 1985, when Texaco decided that the refinery had run its course and left TT.

“We didn’t want to take over Texaco,” the late Ronald Williams, state enterprise minister, told the New York Times, “we had no choice.”

That decision rested on two intractables: the cost of importing petroleum consumables and the jobs of 3,000 employees. The purchase cost the country US$189 million, half of which was paid in product.

Petrotrin is now a vast web of connections spread out all over south Trinidad. Everywhere its leaky lines run, there is a fenceline community that has been drawn into its sphere of influence.

The company may be sending 3,500 employees home, but the repercussions of that decision will echo more widely and deeply than anyone can imagine.

Working there, I met people across the spectrum of their operations, which are massive.

To a person, they all worked with the absolute certainty that their best efforts were directed at raising the efficiency of an installation ranked in the bottom 25 per cent of refineries worldwide.

These were smart qualified people doing their best work in the service of their job as they understood it.

I have no doubt that many of the people who will be made jobless when the company is closed have been doing exactly that.

But all work has context and in many departments at Petrotrin 14 years ago, there was a powerful disconnect between what managers claimed to be be doing and what was actually getting done.

I met senior executives there who, after a change in political parties, found themselves in a cottage on the compound for four years, constructively dismissed, with nothing to do but sit at an executive desk.

There is something powerfully destructive in corporate coventry. The 3,500 workers who are being terminated at the company are, perhaps, the very apotheosis of that.

The thousands of people in the refinery and many thousands more who are indirectly dependent on its existence, including much of Point Fortin, Gasparillo and Marabella, are a significant constituency and keeping them happy ultimately became the point of the refinery’s existence.

The political courage it’s taking to shutter Petrotrin is considerable. The impact of its cauterising, as Dr Rowley described it, with all its infinitely fractal consequences, is simply incalculable and will be felt across the length and breadth of southern Trinidad.

Most of today’s 3,500 employees did nothing wrong. They probably did everything right in the context of their jobs, and are fortunate that the funds are apparently available to buffer their severance, to the tune of at least a billion dollars at last report.

Petrotrin changed many times in its 33 years of existence. Sometimes it made money, but it never made sense.

What replaces it should. It should honour the work of the pioneers in the petroleum industry who created a business that both supported and inadvertently smothered this country’s potential over the 158 years since commercial oil exploration began in this country.

But then, that’s probably what the Williams Cabinet probably thought they were doing in 1985.

Mark Lyndersay is the editor of technewstt.com. An expanded version of this column can be found there

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