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Demming: Why Petrotrin is a socio-cultural fiasco that will darken at least 35 communities

I’m a “glass half-full” kind of person, which is why I see the Petrotrin closure as an opportunity for inspired leadership on one hand, and the transformation of our people on the other.

Leadership and transformation both require a willingness to change the way we see things. The behaviourists talk about changing our mental models, but before we change those mental models we have to engage in a deep conversation about how and why we need to change. And this is where my “glass half-full” notion becomes fragile and even smashes to smithereens.

Photo: Petrotrin oil refinery.
(Copyright Petrotrin.com)

All I see before me is confrontation, one-upmanship, winners (at least, those who think they are) and losers (many who know they are). This is too important a decision for fragile egos to prevail. It requires inspirational leadership and communication.

Businesses go “belly-up” every day but what makes a difference is the capacity of the people involved to see the opportunity in the crisis, and their willingness to roll around in the mud and come out with clear action plans which will be honoured by gentlemen.

The closure of Petrotrin goes way beyond the disappearance of the flare which has brightened the skyline for more than 75 years. The closure will see the darkening of more than 35 fence line communities which thrived because of the business generated by employees at the Refinery.

Gasparillo, Marabella, Plaisance Park, Claxton Bay will change because the refinery no long exists. The delivery of medical services to 20,000 persons annually will also change. The positive outcomes derived from the company’s support for sport and culture will change if not disappear.

These are not hard economic arguments but sociocultural considerations. Indeed, the loss of activity in the area will cause loss of business to the area—from fruit and snack vendors to stores and gas stations, all will be affected.

Photo: Petrotrin workers in Pointe a Pierre.
(Copyright Trinidad Guardian)

These business owners might go from contributing to the economy, to being a drain on it. The loss of healthcare might financially finish off some families, who also might end up having to rely on government handouts.

From a leadership viewpoint, we will see the extent to which this Dr Keith Rowley-led administration can use this as an opportunity to change governance structures at state enterprises. We will see if there is the capacity to transform the public service.

We will see if a model emerges which can make WASA into a productive enterprise. This situation has been played out before, such as the loss of the sugar cane industry which is thriving in other parts of the world—not just for sugar, but alcohol as fuel and other products.

If none of these happen, then it will be fair to conclude that another opportunity for transformation has been squandered and perhaps the leadership capacity just does not exist.

So, the jury will be out for some time with regard to leadership; but with regard to communications, the murkiness in the environment confirms to me that it is a textbook example of how not to handle communication of a major decision.

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley addresses the audience in his “Conversations with the Prime Minister” series.
(Copyright Office of the Prime Minister)

In today’s mediated communications world, leaders have a responsibility to shape the narrative by telling their story. The story of the closure of the refinery has not been told and if anything has raised a level of mistrust which will take a long time to change.

What we are seeing is an “old power” approach in which the Prime Minister and a select few hoard resources like a dam holding back water—flooding some areas to destruction, while causing drought elsewhere.

What is actually needed is a new power approach which is “open, participatory and distributed”, the way rain and rivers distribute water in a forest, so everything grows and thrives. Countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Norway are successfully doing this, so this is not a pie-in-the-sky idea.

The big question remains: is the T&T leadership grown-up enough to do this, and are the T&T citizens responsible enough to handle the resources?

About Dennise Demming

Dennise Demming
Dennise Demming is an Adjunct Faculty Member at UWI, Media and Communications Strategist, TEDxPOS organiser and co-licensee for TEDxPortofSpain and Chairman of the Board at TTTHTI. Dennise, who grew up in East POS, also has a Business MBA and B.Sc. in Political Science & Public Administration and Mass Communications from UWI.

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One comment

  1. Day of moaning for Petrotrin

    DURING last Friday’s unofficial ‘Day of Moaning’ for the official demise of State-owned oil giant Petrotrin, I detected more than a hint of hypocrisy among the moaners. I must confess that your not-so-humble scribe was prominently positioned amidst the thousands of Trini-Pharisees who had saved their saddest faces and rehearsed their most sombre vocal tones for the tragic occasion.

    I admit that mine was an ego issue, one in which my wounded pride provoked extreme prejudice against my fellow Trinis for having shamed me, for having shattered my dreams of seeing us as a people take control of the commanding heights of the economy, and successfully steer them to take their place alongside the best such enterprises in the world.

    When we campaigned in the 1970s for Texaco to go, to leave the local oil industry, especially the massive refinery at Pointe-a-Pierre, for native professionals and dedicated and experienced workers to manage and operate them, we thought we could dance like dragons on the global energy stage, show them a thing or three about our prowess in exploring and exploiting our hydrocarbon resources.

    We didn’t know then that our politicians would pollute the newly-acquired industries with implants who did not know the difference between an oil rig and a bunch of green figs. As far back as then, because we had one of the oldest commercial oil industries in the world, many of our brightest sons and daughters had studied hydrocarbons at the most prestigious universities and technical schools abroad. Scores of them were scooped up by the oil majors and worked in oilfields and refineries across the world. Some became innovators on the technical side. Others mastered petroleum economics and finance.

    But while their services were in demand elsewhere, relatively few found places in the local industry. Over the years, many of them were blacklisted by parties-in-power because they stayed aloof from politics. They saw persons way below their competencies land plum positions while they were relegated to the drudgery and poor pay scales of the public service and academia.

    It was politics, too, that turned once highly motivated workers into

    the lazy-syndrome, damaging the work ethic such that those who chose to be productive were ostracised by their colleagues. Politics and poor management, often indistinguishable from each other, led to neglect of the plants, the equipment and environments workers laboured in.

    The refinery and tank farms rustedtheir neglect could be seen by the public. What we could not see was the sad state of the offshore drilling platforms and vital pipelines. It was almost as if there was a conspiracy to expose the ineptitude of locals, show that they could not run a large oil company the way ‘de white man’ did.

    Meanwhile, benefits, wages and salaries rocketed to levels way out of synch with the national norm, widening income inequality and negatively impacting Petrotrin’s balance sheet. Add to these woes rampant corruption at all levels of the company, from captain to cook, and what we had was a disaster waiting to happen.

    So am I angry that the commanding heights of the economy, embodied in Petrotrin (and Caroni Ltd) have crashed to a disastrous end? Damn right I am. All those who brought the once-powerful giant to its knees ought to be made to pay for their sins. But that’s not about to happen. Instead, they more than likely will have been handsomely rewarded with Lotto-like severance or retirement packages.

    Taxpayers will foot the multi-billion- dollar bills they’ve left behind-$25 billion or more, some economists estimate.

    And you know what makes me angrier? Some foreign company will return, lease the refinery from the Government, employ persons who will be made to work, really work, for salaries far lower than what Petrotrin paid, with little or no benefits, and they who squandered the national patrimony will rush for the jobs.

    It is to our eternal shame that we could create the downstream industrial wonderland that is the Point Lisas Estate, that we were pioneers in the west with Atlantic LNG, but we could not run an oil refinery as a profitable enterprise.

    That really hurts me, as surely as it must make men such as the late George Weekes, Joe Young and

    Ramcharitar ‘Bull’ Lalchan, among the pantheon of unionists and internationalists who fought for us to control our country and its destiny, turn in their graves.

    It’s not just that. Those who sympathised with the richly-compensated architects of Petrotrin’s demise will soon have to pay realistic prices for fuels, either if we continue to import them, or if a new operator takes over the refinery. That’s a simple case of dollars and sense, simple arithmetic. The wealthiest Arab oil-producing countries have removed subsidies, so why not debt-ridden T& T? https://www.trinidadexpress.com/…/article_3ca08e94-f75f-11e…

    The only prerequisite to the implementation of this measure is an efficient public transport system-and I have written extensively on that. Bring on bus rapid transit. It can be phased in, in the busiest corridors, in a few months. But to continue subsidising motor fuels is fiscal madness.

    The wages of the sins of the comparative few who raped and plundered Petrotrin will be an unending, multi-billion- dollar purgatory for generations yet unborn.

    I wish I could write ‘here endeth’. I cannot. I fear our oil and debt woes have only just begun.