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Puerto Rico split by pipeline debate

Oct. 22, 2011 at 1:11 PM   |   Comments

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Oct. 22 (UPI) -- A critic of a 92-mile natural gas line proposal in Puerto Rico said pressuring the government to rethink its options is beginning to show results.

"It appears that our constant questioning and our constant demanding that they follow all of the rules have had the impact we wanted. That is, stop, hold on a minute, let's be a little more careful," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a vocal critic of the pipeline, The New York Times reported Saturday.

The pipeline, which would run from Penuelas across the mountains to San Juan, now depends on an extensive Army Corps of Engineers impact study that has pushed back the original timeline for the project.

"All I can say is that it's extremely complex," Corps of Engineers spokeswoman Nancy Sticht said.

Environmentalists claim the pipeline would cut through 1,500 acres and threaten the lives of 32 species of endangered plants and animals. It would also displace 90 homeowners and require cutting down 270,000 trees.

"The impact on the environment, on our rivers, on our communities is enormous. And there has been very little transparency about how this will be built, what the savings will be and how it will affect Puerto Rico," said Alexis Gonzalez, the founder of environmental group Casa Pueblo.

On the other side of the equation, Gov. Luis Fortuno says, "People are mad as hell about the cost of power. It dampens economic development, kills jobs and puts pressure on families."

At present, 68 percent of Puerto Rico's electricity originates with oil-fired plants, as opposed to 1 percent in the United States. With the pipeline running, natural gas-derived electricity for Puerto Rico is expected to jump from 16 percent to 50 percent by 2016, the Times said.

The governor's argument has been muddied, however, by several questionable political moves.

Fortuno criticized former Gov. Anibal Vila for his natural gas pipeline plans in a 2008 election campaign, then backed this larger project soon after he took over as governor. Last summer, he declared an energy emergency, which allowed him to fast track several steps of the approval process and put the pipeline design contract in a no-bid status. The $9.6 million contract then went to an old friend of the governor's.

The governor said he did not know the design contract went to his friend until he read about it in the newspapers. The company, meanwhile, had no experience designing pipelines and immediately subcontracted the work to a company in Texas.

© 2011 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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