Joseph Phillip, president General of the Contractors and General Workers Union, is right to raise concerns about the future of Lake Asphalt (LATT). According to Phillip, the company is in a slump with no clear strategy being articulated by Government to address significant shortfalls in its business.
Phillip noted that 80 per cent of LATT’s revenues come from bitumen, but the company now finds itself in the embarrassing position of being unable to compete on price with imported product, which road-paving companies, many of which are handling government contracts, are importing. If the sale of commercial bitumen has indeed dropped by 50 per cent to 10,000 tonnes for the first half of 2019, it’s an issue that needs addressing at the highest levels.
Raw asphalt was the original oil and gas sector-product, developed quickly from ship caulking to become the premier road surfacing material. A year ago, a delegation from China’s Beijing Construction Engineering Group and Song Yumin, China’s ambassador to TT, toured the Pitch Lake in pouring rain, so keen was their interest in this natural resource and their need for a reliable supply of quality asphalt for the construction of a massive new airport in Beijing. It would be unwise for Government to rely only on this country’s historically cosy relationship with China to deliver an answer to the marketing dilemma that LATT faces. A big contract from that country would be great, but windfalls do not a marketing strategy make.
The answer is also unlikely to be found in tariffs on cheap asphalt imports. Government must re-examine its strategy for handling our first petroleum product and amplify efforts to move the raw material further up the value chain, leveraging the century of experience TT has amassed in mining, processing and exporting asphalt products.
In 2015 an MoU was signed between LATT and the University of the West Indies (UWI) to collaborate on more research, development and commercialisation of asphalt and asphalt-based products, an important revitalising of the company’s moribund Lasco line of sealants and anti-corrosive paint
Last month, UWI licensed two fruits of that joint research project, UWI Plastic Cement and UWI Primer, products derived from asphalt raw materials.
For the university, it’s a win that signals a real world capacity to bring innovative products to market for a local company that also happens to be a state enterprise managing a key national resource. For LATT, it should mark the first steps in becoming a more industrious commercial exploiter of the potential of the Pitch Lake, which is overdue to evolve from national wonder to a more literal treasure.