Before a partisan audience at a meeting of the St James South Constituency branch of the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) last Sunday evening, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart finally broke his silence on the controversial Cahill waste-to-energy project, against which there seems to be considerable public opposition.
However, Mr Stuart’s response, coming after months of raging debate on the suitability of this waste management solution for Barbados and repeated calls for him to set the record straight as Prime Minister, raises further questions instead of causing the controversy to settle down –– despite his emphatic statement that “no decisions have been taken on this issue. None”.
In the first place, the language of a news release issued by Cahill Energy on March 17, 2014, conveyed the impression the project was a done deal. The news release, containing comments attributed to three ministers of the Stuart Cabinet, was issued following what it said was the signing, two days earlier, of a “historic agreement” with the Government to build the controversial waste-to-energy plant.
The release said: “Cahill Energy Limited will contribute to solving both the waste and energy security challenges that Barbados faces by financing and overseeing the construction and management of a plasma gasification plant using plasma technology in a specialized gasification system already proven and patented by Westinghouse Plasma Corporation.”
The language here speaks with a particular certainty about the project, and the reason seems quite obvious. On its website, which provides a fair amount of information about the project, Cahill is saying that the agreement was “unanimously approved by Cabinet”. In other words, everyone who was present when Cabinet considered the matter consented or agreed to the project.
In light of Mr Stuart’s comments last Sunday, a question that arises is: what made the company feel sufficiently comfortable to make such an emphatic statement? Cahill says it has an agreement with the Government of Barbados. Another questions which arises is: what kind of agreement?
The dictionary definition of agreement speaks of an arrangement which is accepted by all parties to a transaction. Does that obtain in this particular case?
The news release put out by Cahill does imply that the Government of Barbados accepted the arrangement it brought. Comments attributed to Minister of the Environment Dr Dennis Lowe also conveyed this impression.
“Cahill Energy has brought a waste-to-energy option to the Government of Barbados that is far superior to any other we have examined,” he reportedly said. “We believe that our country will be changed forever as a result.”
Dr Lowe’s language also suggests a certainty about the project, specifically the remark that Barbados “will be changed forever as a result”.
Comments attributed to Minister of Energy Senator Darcy Boyce have a similar effect. He spoke of the Cahill project “helping Barbados significantly to reach . . . ten years earlier than planned” its target of producing, by 2029, 29 per cent of its electricity needs from renewable and alternative energy.
Given Mr Stuart’s promise on Sunday that Government intends to seek public buy-in in the search for solutions to the island’s waste management problem, there is definitely a need for him to come back to the country to provide full clarification on questions his statement has naturally triggered.
For example, if no decision has been taken on the project, why then was it necessary for the Government to enter an agreement with Cahill? Couldn’t signing the agreement have waited until a decision was taken?
Interestingly, Government has never challenged the accuracy of the statement put out by Cahill, and it has been in the public domain for more than one year. A situation now clearly exists where Mr Stuart is saying that no decision has been taken, but Cahill is suggesting it is a done deal. The question is: who is the public to believe?
That is why the country needs to receive a more comprehensive statement from the Prime Minister clarifying all the relevant issues. Ultimately, it is Barbadian taxpayers who have to foot the bill for any agreement. This being the case, they have a right to expect full disclosure of the details of this multimillion-dollar project which the Government has handled terribly from a public communication perspective.