President Barack Obama is due to visit Puerto Rico next week in what will be the first official U.S. presidential visit to the territory in 50 years. His trip comes as controversy grows over a proposed 92-mile natural gas pipeline that would cut across much of the island. Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuño has made the $450 million project a central goal of his administration and insists it is a safe and environmentally friendly way to lower utility bills. Called Vía Verde (Green Way), the pipeline has been dubbed Vía de la Muerte (Death Route) by critics who say it will expose people living near it to deadly explosions and cause irreversible damage to the island’s environmental and cultural resources. We speak with Dr. Arturo Massol, a biology professor and director of the Scientific and Technical Commission of Casa Pueblo, a community-based organization in Puerto Rico that is leading opposition against the pipeline project. He calls for development of infrastructure that can harness the island’s solar and wind power to meet its energy needs. [includes rush transcript]
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JUAN GONZALEZ: President Barack Obama is due to visit Puerto Rico next week in what will be the first official U.S. presidential visit to the island in 50 years. President John F. Kennedy made the last official visit to Puerto Rico in December of 1961.
Obama’s visit comes amidst growing controversy over a proposed natural gas pipeline that would cut across much of the island. Puerto Rico’s governor is proposing to solve soaring energy prices on the oil-dependent U.S. island with the massive natural gas pipeline, which would cross some of the territory’s most fragile ecosystems and archaeological sites. Governor Luis Fortuño has made the $450 million project a central goal of his administration, and he insists it is a safe, environment-friendly way to lower utility bills. Critics say the 92-mile pipeline will expose people living near it to deadly explosions. Called Vía Verde, or the Green Way, the pipeline has been dubbed Vía de la Muerte, Death Route, by its opponents and prompted protests and petitions to stop it.
Last month on Democracy Now!, Democratic Representative therules">Luis Gutierrez of Illinois talked about another controversy surrounding the pipeline.
REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ: The government of Puerto Rico lets out contracts for the natural gas pipeline. And guess who gets chosen to design the 92 miles? The skiing partner of the governor of Puerto Rico, who admits, freely admits, that his engineering company has never designed one, so he sent the design over to Houston, Texas, to be designed.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Democratic Congressmember Luis Gutierrez of Illinois on Democracy Now!
For more on the situation in Puerto Rico, we’re joined by Arturo Massol, director of the Scientific and Technical Commission of Casa Pueblo, a community-based organization in Puerto Rico that’s leading the opposition against the pipeline project. He’s also a professor of biology at the University of Puerto Rico.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about why you’re so concerned about this pipeline.
ARTURO MASSOL: Well, the concern, from the community point of view, is the ecological damage and the risk that the pipeline will pose to over 200,000 people. It’s also about the economy. It won’t reduce the cost of energy. We have engineers evaluating all of the infrastructure and potential benefits, and there’s no benefit for the people of Puerto Rico, economically speaking. We are going to receive all the damages and the consequences — the environmental, the social and economical impacts — while a few contractors will get most of the benefit.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Explain how the pipeline would work, because obviously the entire center of Puerto Rico is hills and mountains. It’s going right through the middle of the island?
ARTURO MASSOL: It’s going right through the middle of the island, crossing forest land, over 235 rivers. It will impact 32 — the habitat of at least 32 endangered species. And the pipeline, the justification is a terminal in the southern part of the island. And the president of that company, of EcoEléctrica, which is owned by Unión Fenosa, a Spanish company accused of human rights violations in Latin America, they went public yesterday, and they said that they don’t have the infrastructure, neither the permit, to provide gas for the pipeline. So we will be investing in a pipeline that will have no gas to operate for at least seven to eight years. So it’s not a viable alternative. It will not be — it is not the best way, it’s not the best alternative, to deal with the energy situation in Puerto Rico.
AMY GOODMAN: Who has put forward this project? Who proposed it? Who benefits the most from it?
ARTURO MASSOL: Well, it is proposed by private companies that have takeover of the Puerto Rico Power Authority. EcoEléctrica, of course, they are the terminal, and they will benefit because they will get control of 70 percent of all the fuel that is needed — will be needed in Puerto Rico to generate electricity. So it’s just a few of them will be benefiting from this proposal.
It’s basically substituting the oil dependency, the oil addiction for generating power in Puerto Rico, for natural gas. We don’t produce neither of those. So, we think we need to move forward to cleaner alternatives. We have sun. We have wind. We have plenty of water. I mean, we are an island. We have plenty of natural resources. And even President Obama have stated that Puerto Rico should move forward toward green jobs and also toward renewable sources. And we have that, and we want to push that agenda forward. Building the pipeline and changing the logic from oil to natural gas is not the solution. So, that’s part of a —
JUAN GONZALEZ: You mentioned that —
ARTURO MASSOL: — [inaudible] agenda.
JUAN GONZALEZ: You mentioned the Obama policy. Obviously, the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico a few months ago came out with a report talking about the need to move to sustainable and renewable energies. So this seems to directly contradict the federal policy. Does the federal government have any say or involvement in the decisions that Puerto Rico must make on this pipeline?
ARTURO MASSOL: Well, right now, the government is waiting for the final authorization. It’s a joint permit with the Army Corps of Engineers. This agency have been evaluating this permit for over six months in their San Juan and their Caribbean office. However, recently, the director of the Jacksonville office, they removed the file from Puerto Rico, and it’s now in Jacksonville. So all the discussion is going behind the people of Puerto Rico. And that’s why Casa Pueblo is now in New York, in Washington, D.C., asking for support from different groups. We need all the viewers, all the community of Puerto Ricans in the States, to be aware that this proposal will compromise the integrity of our natural resources and the future agenda on energy policy in Puerto Rico.
AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Gutierrez pointed out, when Fortuño was running for governor, he said it would be a grave mistake to depend on natural gas. What changed? He is not only supporting it, he has fast-tracked it.
ARTURO MASSOL: He actually declared a state of emergency, energy emergency, to facilitate and expedite all the permits that are needed at the local level. But basically, to save the — a few companies were already near bankruptcy, friends of him. I don’t know exactly what happened to Governor Fortuño, but clearly this is a major contradiction of Governor Fortuño before the election and after he was elected. The people clearly oppose to these proposals, regardless of the political party. We’re talking about 70 percent of the people against this proposal.
JUAN GONZALEZ: That’s what I was going to ask you — what’s been the public response — because obviously Governor Fortuño, his pro-statehood party controls both houses in the Puerto Rico legislature, as well as him controlling the governor’s mansion, obviously.
ARTURO MASSOL: Well, he might control the political structure of Puerto Rico, but not the people of Puerto Rico. Regardless of the political views of the people of Puerto Rico, and regardless of a strong media campaign sponsored by the Governor investing millions of dollars to sell out, to sell this proposal to the people, no one believes on this proposal. The people recognize that it’s environmentally damaging for the island, that it’s economically not real, and there’s other alternatives. So, we’re not opposing to natural gas; we’re opposing to the pipeline that will be compromising the natural resources and the security of the people.
AMY GOODMAN: And exactly where this pipeline goes in Puerto Rico?
ARTURO MASSOL: So, it will go from the south part, crossing all the most important watershed of Puerto Rico that provides water for more than one million people, and it will reach a power plant in the north that only produces one percent of the total energy. After that point, it will move to the east, and it will feed two more power plants. And all together, they don’t produce more than 20 percent of the total energy. It’s not cost-effective. We have better ways and other alternatives. There’s better power plants in the southern part of the island that produces much more energy than all of the northern parts power plants combined. So, it is irrational. I mean, it’s highly irrational, the proposal. And it’s not doable. I mean, the terminal that is in Peñuelas and is supposed to provide the natural gas, they don’t have the infrastructure. They built a pipeline 10 years ago to a power plant that is only two kilometers away from that terminal. They haven’t been able to provide gas to that power plant. And yet they’re proposing and forcing this proposal that is clearly to facilitate —- I mean, to invest money that will be wasted for the people of Puerto Rico. We can handle that -—
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the projected source of the natural gas that will run through the pipeline? Where is that supposed to be coming from?
ARTURO MASSOL: Trinidad and Tobago will be one of the suppliers, but they are thinking that the natural gas is reserved in the U.S. The ones that are being extracted with fracking and environmentally damaging technologies are going to be the source of natural gas for Puerto Rico.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Oh, so they’re going to frack in the U.S. and then ship the gas through the pipeline in Puerto Rico.
ARTURO MASSOL: Sort of. That’s the justification the government is talking about.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you taken the budget, the amount of money it would take to build this pipeline, and compared it to the amount of money that could be put into green jobs, into wind, into solar, to propose an alternative?
ARTURO MASSOL: We think we should be moving forward to renewable sources. This almost $500 million could be used to provide clean energy sources for all of the official and government and schools of the state. And they can reduce the cost of energy, as we have to sponsor — the people of Puerto Rico have to sponsor and pay for the energy bills of all of these government buildings. So if they invest that, we can free all of those buildings, and we can actually transfer that benefit to the people of Puerto Rico. So, I mean, you can create hundreds of jobs, permanent jobs. They are talking about 1,000 jobs for one year. So we’re going to have 1,000 unemployees a year later. So this is not a solution, neither for job creations.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Also, I mean, clearly, not only does Puerto Rico have an abundance of sun, it also — as you mentioned, the Caribbean breeze is always blowing, so that the potential for wind energy is phenomenal. Has there been any kind of, like, developments in this area so far on the island?
ARTURO MASSOL: They are proposing to build infrastructure like that in critical forest. So they canceled — the benefit of using the wind has been canceled by the location that they’re choosing. We have researchers, engineers at the University of Puerto Rico, that have stated that using one percent of the coastals — of coast of Puerto Rico offshore, we can produce 100 percent of the total energy demand of Puerto Rico in peak hours. I mean, it is doable. The engineering, the knowledge is out there. It’s about the will of pushing forward a policy that is actually in the best benefit of the people of Puerto Rico and not in the benefit of the contractors and friends of the Governor.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re having a protest today outside 26 Federal Plaza here in New York City, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Why?
ARTURO MASSOL: That is a statement of the Puerto Rican community in New York to support the people of Puerto Rico, basically, because the file that is evaluating this proposal has been removed from San Juan and is now in the U.S. It’s in Florida, behind the back of the people of Puerto Rico. And the people in New York, in D.C., and different places of the U.S., they will be — they will be claiming that they do the right thing. Public hearings is necessary, a federal impact statement. They want to avoid that process, even at the federal level. We don’t understand that. They require a federal impact statement for smaller projects, and yet we’re talking about a 92-miles pipeline, when Puerto Rico is 100 miles wide. And they are not asking for a federal impact statement. We think it’s the impact of lobbyists and consultants in the U.S. that are impacting the policy.
AMY GOODMAN: So what are you demanding of President Obama, since it’s going to be the first presidential official visit in half a century?
ARTURO MASSOL: Well, we wrote to Obama. We handled a letter when we were there a few days ago. And we are requesting him to deny — to request the Army Corps of Engineers to deny the permit for this proposal and to actually move forward his proposal of the White House: green jobs. And we want renewable resources and energy sources, as he stated in that report.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we’ve had Luis Gutierrez on, the congressman from Illinois. What about the other Puerto Ricans in Congress? Where are they on this issue? And have they spoken out?
ARTURO MASSOL: We have visited them. They have all the information. Now they’re aware of the situation. It’s up to them to also show up and protect the people of Puerto Rico, not only in the states where people can vote for them, but also the people for Puerto Rico on the main island. So, hopefully, Congressman Serrano and Nydia Velázquez will eventually speak out.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Labrador is also, the Republican.
ARTURO MASSOL: Well, the one from Idaho, we don’t know about him.
JUAN GONZALEZ: From Idaho, yes.
ARTURO MASSOL: But at least the ones from New York we’re expecting, you know, to move forward on behalf of the people of Puerto Rico. Their support is necessary at this point.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Arturo Massol, we want to thank you very much for being with us, director of the Scientific and Technical Commission of Casa Pueblo, a community-based organization in Puerto Rico leading the opposition to the pipeline. He’s also a professor of biology at the University of Puerto Rico. Thank you so much.