Puerto Rico’s Battle Over the Via Verde Natural Gas Pipeline: The Right Choice for the Island’s Energy Future?

Officially named Via Verde (Green Way) by the government, the proposed pipeline has been dubbed Via de la Muerte (Death Route) by its opponents, prompting protests and petitions to stop it. A recent poll conducted by El Nuevo Dia (one of Puerto Rico’s largest news outlets) indicates that 70 percent of citizens oppose the construction of the pipeline, 61 percent are “very worried” about the safety of this project and its impacts, and 56 percent of people are not convinced that the pipeline will achieve its primary goal of reducing the cost of electricity, compared to 27 percent who believe that it will.

Earlier this year, 30,000 Puerto Ricans took to the streets in protest, including a broad coalition of labor groups and community organizations. The opposition has spread across the Atlantic to Puerto Rican activist groups in New York, and highly popular Puerto Rican Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) has elevated this issue, calling on the Army Corps of Engineers to halt this “extremely unpopular” project.

Despite the large public outcry, Puerto Rican governor Luis Fortuño continues to make a case for the project. “With Vía Verde we will enter a new energy era that strengthens the competitiveness of our economy and improves the quality of life of our people,” Fortuño said, calling the high price of energy the main obstacle to the island’s economic and social development.

Just last month Daniel Pagán, an engineer from PREPA, claimed that Via Verde would cut electricity cost by 30 percent, reduce emissions by 60 percent, and generate 4,500 new jobs. The project is also expected to decrease the island’s oil dependence to 12 percent of power generation by 2012, while boosting natural gas usage to 71 percent from its current 15 percent, according to PREPA projections. Currently, the island produces about 70 percent of its power from imported oil, with the rest split evenly between natural gas and coal.

These claims by PREPA have been refuted by researchers from the University of Puerto Rico, however. Most notably, data released from a 2011 study that concludes the best case scenario for Vía Verde will provide savings of only one cent per kilowatt-hour. (In its own estimation, PREPA suggests that the savings are in the order of 12 cents per kilowatt-hour).

Still, for an island with an unemployment rate of nearly 15 percent, where 48 percent of residents live in poverty, and the average family makes only $17,184 while paying double the U.S. rate for energy, the promise of new jobs and a reduction in energy costs is a welcome.

But the story is much more complex.For one, many Puerto Ricans fear that poor communities, including large populations of senior citizens, will be pushed out of their homes; many are already feeling pressures to sell their properties well below market value to clear a way for the pipeline. Rep. Gutierrez recently criticized the project on the floor of the U.S. Congress calling it a “$500 million pipeline designed to benefit the richest people in Puerto Rico.

Many Puerto Ricans are also highly concerned about the project’s impact on the natural beauty and ecosystem of the island, whose tourism industry employs 60,000 people, attracts 3.9 million tourists yearly, and accounts for 7 percent of the island’s total GNP. Critics of the project also fear potential leakage or explosion — both of which could occur in an area that is prone to flooding and extreme weather.

A petition signed by over 7,000 people notes that the pipeline will cause more than 8 million cubic meters of earth to be displaced, affect multiple bodies of water, lakes, and the fishing industry, as well as permanently impact more than 1,500 acres of forests, and more than 369 acres of wetlands. It will also impact the habitat of 34 endangered species, along with 235 rivers and streams, including a critical conservation zone which produces 25 percent of the water consumed in Puerto Rico.

Finally, and perhaps most profoundly, many Puerto Ricans do not want their economic development and energy future to be directly tied to the fossil fuel industry. A large and growing coalition of Puerto Ricans favor deployment of renewable energy, and many believe the funds can be better spent deploying renewable energy and efficiency projects. Others see natural gas as a cleaner alternative to burning oil and coal, but oppose the invasive and volatile nature of the pipeline, and its influence on the long-term energy portfolio of the island.

Professor Dr. Massol-Deya from the University of Puerto Rico points out in a recent presentation to labor leaders, “there are short term values of natural gas, but this pipeline is permanent and sets up the island to burn natural gas for the next 30–40 years…it will produce 70 percent of the energy on the island…it will be one addiction for another.”

Julissa Corporan, a life-long resident of the island and operator of Atabey Ecotours, says that residents don’t want to be stuck in the fossil fuel economy, “People are educating themselves, and we want renewable energy…we don’t want to work in the past, in fossil fuel energy, they don’t last forever and we know that.”