Vía Verde Project
|This article is part of the Global Fossil Infrastructure Tracker, a project of Global Energy Monitor and the Center for Media and Democracy.|
Vía Verde Project, also called the Green Way Project, Gasoducto del Norte, and the Northern Gas Pipeline, was a proposed gas pipeline in the United States territory of Puerto Rico.
- 1 Location
- 2 Project Details
- 3 Background
- 4 History
- 5 Controversies
- 6 Articles and resources
The pipeline would have run from Peñuelas, on Puerto Rico's southern coast, to electricity-generating plants in Arecibo, Cataño and San Juan, crossing the island's Cordillera Central.
- Owner: Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority
- Current capacity:
- Status: Cancelled
- Start Year:
The proposed pipeline would have distribute natural gas from the Costa Sur Sugar Plantation (Peñuelas/Guayanilla area) north to the Arecibo Cambalache plant, and on to the Palo Seco and San Juan areas. The proposed route would have cut through Puerto Rico's Cordillera Central and the northern Karst region and crossed 13 municipalities. According to documents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the proposed route would have crossed 235 rivers and brooks and 1.4 million square meters of wetlands. Dr. Arturo Massol González, professor at the University of Puerto Rico, winner of the 2003 Goldman Environmental Prize and director of Casa Pueblo, a community-based environmental watchdog organization in Puerto Rico, estimated that construction of the project would require the alteration of 8.2 million cubic meters of land.
The pipeline was to be operated by AEE. The gas to be transported by the pipeline will be supplied by a single supplier, EcoElectrica. The pipeline would have had a diameter of 24 inches (610 mm). Its original length was planned to be 92 miles (148 km), but an October 2011 plan revision shows it may be changed to run closer to 100 miles. Autoridad de Energia Electrica planned to convert several oil-fired plants to natural gas, starting with Costa Sur's units 5 and 6. Subsequently, AEE plants at Cambalache, Palo Seco (units 3 and 4), and San Juan (units 5 through 10), would have been converted to natural gas.
The pipeline was proposed by the administration of Governor Luis Fortuño. The project aimed to supply 71% of Puerto Rico's electrical energy needs while lowering the cost of electricity in the island. It was lauded as the "crown jewel" project of his administration and was called the centerpiece of Governor's efforts to kick-start Puerto Rico's dormant economy.
The project faced stiff opposition from the public, environmental groups such as Casa Pueblo and Bill McKibben, and from members of the United States Congress, including Congressman Luis Gutierrez. A Puerto Rico newspaper poll taken in March 2011 showed that 70% of the residents opposed the gas pipeline.
As of 21 March 2012, the government of Puerto Rico was still awaiting permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before commencing construction of the projected pipeline. If construction was started, the government estimated the project would take 12 months to complete, but the time estimate was called "fiction" even by members of the Governor's own political party.
On 15 June 2012, the government of Puerto Rico removed from the project the section of the pipeline that would have traversed from Peñuelas to Arecibo. The decision was based on data that indicated there would not be enough gas at Peñuelas to feed into the pipeline. This pipeline section would have cut though the Cordillera Central and was the primary focus of environmentalists' objections.
After much opposition, on 11 October 2012, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (AEE) withdrew the entire Vía Verde permit application from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers evaluation process, thereby stalling approval of the proposed pipeline indefinitely.
In 1993, the chairman of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (AEE), Miguel Cordero, proposed a natural gas pipeline as part of the Government of Puerto Rico's plan to diversify Puerto Rico's energy sources. However, the proposal was not proceeded during the administration of the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP) governor Pedro Rosselló (1993–2000).In 2001, the Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico (PPD) won the gubernatorial elections, putting Sila Calderon in La Fortaleza from 2001 to 2004, and appointed Héctor Rosario as executive director of the AEE. The pipeline plan proposed by Cordero was shelved. In 2005, a natural gas pipeline project named Gasoducto del Sur (English: Southern Gas Pipeline) started construction under the PPD administration of Aníbal Acevedo Vilá.The Gasoducto del Sur pipeline would have transported natural gas from the EcoEléctrica facilities in Peñuelas to the power plant at Aguirre in Salinas. Acevedo Vilá managed to complete about 25% of the Gasoducto del Sur project before being defeated by the opposing party, the PNP, in the 2008 elections. When the PNP took back La Fortaleza in 2009 via Luis Fortuño as governor, Miguel Cordero was reappointed executive director of the AEE, and the Gasoducto del Sur project, though a quarter of its way completed, was abruptly cancelled. The cancellation left the Government of Puerto Rico with a US$59 million debt to the contractor, Skanska, and opened the way for the PNP's alternative Via Verde Project, also called Gasoducto del Norte.
On 19 September 2010, Casa Pueblo held a peaceful march against the project. Another march took place on 1 May 2011, where the governor's opposition party, the PPD, showed their opposition to the project. More than 30,000 people marched in the May protest. In December of 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers not issue a permit for the construction of the Via Verde project.
On 11 June 2011, a group of environmentalists from Casa Pueblo, National Puerto Rican Coalition, Sierra Club, Earth Justice and Greenpeace presented their opposition to the project in Washington, DC. On 29 September 2011, Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez formally requested that President Barack Obama investigate the project citing "serious concerns over the existence of a 'close relationship' between the RFC solicitor and its agents and the consultants who review and present formal comments about the Via Verde permit applications" to the Government, as well as an over concerns that Governor Luis Fortuño was using his influence to intervene in favor of the project when he asked to speak to the U.S. Secretary of the Department of the Interior, Ken Salazar, about Via Verde "in a process that its already following its course and which did not correspond him to intervene." On 5 October 2011, AEE started the process of land expropriation, even though the Puerto Rican government did not yet possess the necessary permits from the Federal authorities.
On 19 February 2012, a crowd numbering about 6,000 persons held a march in the capital city of San Juan, Puerto Rico, to protest the construction of the pipeline. A simultaneous march was held in New York City. On 11 March 2012, a block of concerned citizens set up a permanent encampment in front of the northern electric generating plant at Palo Seco, one of those that would receive gas from the planned Gasoducto, to protest the planned gas pipeline. On 30 May 2012, the Puerto Rico Senate started hearings on the project and claimed that it is not “the only alternative” to reduce the cost of electricity in Puerto Rico. On October 11, 2012 AEE officially withdrew the entire Vía Verde permit application from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers evaluation process, thereby stalling approval of the proposed pipeline indefinitely.
A number of controversies surround this project. The administration of governor Luis G. Fortuño maintained that the Vía Verde Pipeline would supply the island with a cleaner energy source while reducing the cost of generating electricity by up to 30%. It also estimated that Via Verde would reduce gas emissions by 60% while creating 5,000 direct and indirect jobs. Puerto Rico uses 36,000 GWh of electricity annually. The cost at the time for 1 million British thermal units (1.1 GJ) with petroleum burning is $12.25. With Vía Verde, the cost would be reduced to $5.15, according to government figures.But some have argued that politicians baptized the project as "Via Verde" (Green Way) to give the appearance that it was environmentally beneficial. Others, like Casa Pueblo founder Alexis Massol, have made reacted to the Via Verde (Green Way) name as a misnomer: "Vía Verde ... was rumored to be a gas pipeline, nothing green and nothing ecological." A 5 October 2011 report in La Perla del Sur, a Ponce, Puerto Rico, weekly, stated that high-ranking members of the political party that Governor Luis Fortuno presides have broken ranks with the governor in favor of energy alternatives that are more efficient, less costly, and less intrusive on the environment.
Some argue that Via Verde would have negatively impacted forest areas, hydrographic basins, lands fit for agriculture, and the endangered karstic region of northern Puerto Rico. It would have represented further dependence on another form of fossil fuels that, while less polluting than the current oil-based system of electricity generation, would still contribute significantly to global warming and environmental degradation. In January 2012, environmentalist Bill McKibben presented his opposition for the Via Verde project, comparing it to the then halted Keystone XL pipeline project. He stated, "Around the world, the fossil-fuel industry is carrying out its last desperate attempt to avoid the arrival of renewable energy and to ensure the existence of its dirty fuels. They seem to be using their standard strategy in Puerto Rico as well: to act quickly and with a minimum amount of review before the opposition has time to organize and bring out the truth."
The Government contended that the only forest affected would have been the Bosque de Vega Baja where a 3.9-mile long trench would be carved. It also stated that the project would require the removal of 1.1 million cubic meters of land. The ex-head of the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources, Daniel Pagan Rosa, added that only one endangered species, the guabairo, would be affected by the construction of the pipeline. Pagan Rosa also added that the use of Horizontal Directional Drilling would allow the construction of the pipeline "60 feet below the bottom of rivers." However, during an official interview in Ponce on 22 March 2011, the Government admitted it did not have an erosion and landslide control plan.
Cost of electricity
AEE claimed there would be a 30% reduction in the cost of electricity. However, independent analysts estimate that this figure had been grossly exaggerated and that the real reduction would have been closer to 18%. Much, if not all of which, would have been cancelled out by market fluctuations in the price of gas and by the government's need to cover the cost of project construction. Some opponents, such as Puerto Rican PNP Senator Larry Seilhamer Rodríguez, argued that the project would not meet its primary objective of reducing electric rates for Puerto Rican consumers. The government's own data, based on reports from the Puerto Rico electric company to its stockholders, have confirmed that the pipeline will not reduce consumers' electric bills. Still, the government defended the project stating that "with today's technology, the cost to produce a kWh using renewable energy sources is considerably more expensive than using traditional energy sources". However, on 21 December 2011, Autoridad de Energía Electrica, the government's Via Verde customer, admitted that Via Verde will not lower consumers' energy costs.
Cost of the project
Pedro Jiménez, retired engineering professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, argued that "in the long run, the project will cost from two and a half to three times the currently project cost of the AEE of $445 millions." In January 2012, Casa Pueblo estimated that the cost of the project, considering payments to contractors of $800 million plus amortization over 30 years, would be $3 billion USD.
According to officials at EcoEléctrica, gas output at their facilities will not provide enough natural gas to power generators beyond Costa Sur, the first gas-to-electric conversion unit in the path of the pipeline and located in the municipality of Penuelas. Because EcoEléctrica was the sole provider of gas to the pipeline, opponents argued that there would not be a sufficient amount of gas to justify the pipeline.
Construction of the pipeline was estimated to affect 51 communities, the campus of the University of Puerto Rico at Utuado, and church and gas station entrances, together potentially affecting some 22,000 families. The Government, however, stated the pipeline would be built at a prudent distance from communities. Yet community leaders at Casa Pueblo explain that the pipeline would have run alongside roads, including alongside the road in front of Levittown, a community of 30,000 residents, and the pipeline would have run above ground in sections of PR-10, a road used by over 13,000 vehicles daily.
In defense of the project, its senior environmental advisor, Daniel Pagan Rosa, stated that the pipeline's safety system would have been more sophisticated than those traditionally built in the United States. He added that there would be two monitoring centers, one in Ponce, and one in San Juan's Monancillo area. He also maintained that the system would be built to permit switching back to petroleum should a major disaster affect the pipeline.
University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez engineering professor Pedro Jiménez expressed concerns over the safety of the project and its cost, "The pipeline will not be built to withstand a large earthquake, let alone [a tsunami] like Japan's." Commenting in the aftermath of the effects of Hurricane Irene in Puerto Rico, Jiménez said that "the project represents a time bomb." The Puerto Rico College of Surgeons, a professional organization covering all physicians licensed to practice in Puerto Rico, approved a motion of support for a report by its Committee on Environmental Resources which pointed at the pipeline as "a grave danger to public health." Also, the Puerto Rico director of the Caribbean Tsunami Alert Program, Crista Von Hillebrant, confirmed to a local news weekly that EcoElectrica, the only point of entry for the natural gas to be injected into the Gasoducto, was located in a tsunami risk zone.
The Governor was quoted as saying that in case of an earthquake in Puerto Rico, he would flee Old San Juan with his family and head to fort El Morro, to stay clear of potential explosions in the gas pipelines of Old San Juan.
The Government's motivations with the project have been questioned by several prominent individuals and organizations. These revolve around accusations of governmental secrecy, maneuvering, manipulation, and conflict of interests. There have been accusations that Governor Luis Fortuño approved the projects to take place via a "fast-track" and that government agencies are charging forward with the project without the proper involvement of non-governmental parties. Nevertheless, the executive director of Puerto Rico's Office of Energy Affairs argues that "AEE has been very open with the people in discussing the project and that within the available alternatives the gas pipeline is the one that makes most sense."
In April 2012, Congressman Luis Gutiérrez qualified the actions of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE) as corruption and asked that any evaluation related to the pipeline project be immediately halted, “[The USACOE] does not have the moral capacity to supervise any permit for the Gasoducto...they contaminated the process when the Government of Puerto Rico hired as an advisor BC Peabody, a firm whose director is the former director of the Jacksonville Office of the Corps of Engineers”. He charged the Jacksonville Office with unethical practices and challenged the Office to react to the accusations. Alexis Massol, director of Casa Pueblo, stated that "Mr. [Alfred A.] Pantano [head of the Jacksonville, Florida, U.S. Corps of Engineers office in change of reviewing the permit application from the Government of Puerto Rico,] ordered the transfer of the [U.S. Corps of Engineers] reviewing office from Puerto Rico to Florida [USA], provoking mistrust. When Mr. Pantano told the press that [constructing of a] building has a greater impact than building a gas pipeline, such comment provoked suspicion. When Mr. Pantano hides information from other federal agencies regarding the [planned] existence of 20 other hidden valves for [the addition of] other branch pipelines, then he raises more suspicion, greater mistrust, and gives the appearance of a total fabrication." On 6 November 2011, Congressman Luis Gutierrez expressed having knowledge of contradictory statements coming out of Mr. Pantano's office which "raised great concern." On 11 November 2011, an investigation by the Ponce, Puerto Rico-based La Perla del Sur newsweekly found that allegations made to Noticentro by Governor Fortuño on October 27 2011 stated that it was necessary for his government to appropriate lands before qualifying for the permit by the U.S. Corps of Engineers (USCE), were denied by Barry Vorse, the spokesperson for the USCE. The director of Casa Pueblo complained that project consultants such as its head consultant Daniel Pagan Rosa, "continue lying about the permit process to save their [$30] million dollar contracts."
In May 2011, the regional Jacksonville, Florida, office of the U.S. Corps of Engineers took over for the local San Juan Corps of Engineers office. The action was received with suspicion and criticized as having set a precedent in how the USACOE works, where local permits are always managed by the office closest to where the application would be applied.
With the completion of the project initially set to occur just two months prior to Governor Fortuño's re-election bid in November 2012, National Public Radio has also wondered if the project may be politically motivated.
The government has been accused of not being forthcoming in its evaluations of possible alternatives to the gas pipeline. In February 2012, a marine engineer from Excelerate Energy stated that "there isn't a single impediment of significance, be it structural or economic, that would make it impossible for the electrical units on the north [shore of Puerto Rico] to connect to barges to receive natural gas...and anyone stating the opposite doesn't know what he is talking about." This is contrary to what government spokesmen Miguel Cordero López, ex-executive director of Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica, and Daniel Pagán Rosa, the government's lead advisor of the Vía Verde project, had been reporting "for the last 17 months." The fact that Excelerate Energy signed a contract to supply liquid-to-gas natural gas conversion barges to the Autoridad de Energia Electrica's southern unit at Aguirre, says Casa Pueblo founder Alexis Massol González, defeats the government's efforts to sell this "absurd" idea to the people. The government had claimed that off-shore barges were not a viable alternative. In an article titled "Barcazas pueden sustituir Gasoducto del Norte," (Barges can substitute Gasoducto del Norte), it was reported that barges were a viable alternative. On 30 May 2012, the Puerto Rico Senate held hearings on the project and found that "the temporary transition to propane gas and the future delivery of natural gas via offshore vessels and submarine gas pipelines are viable alternatives, both from the technical as well as the financial perspectives", to the Via Verde Project pipeline.
Furthermore, Congressman Luis Gutierrez stated that the main contract for designing the pipeline went to a company which admitted to having no experience in designing gas pipelines and is owned by "the skiing partner of the governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuño."
Articles and resources
Related SourceWatch articles
Wikipedia also has an article on Via Verde Project (Via Verde project). This article may use content from the Wikipedia article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License].