Planned gas pipeline in Puerto Rico brings criticism

Its supporters call it the "Green Way" (Via Verde), but the massive planned liquefied natural gas pipeline that is going to cut across the island of Puerto Rico diagonally for 92 miles (148 kilometers) has environmentalists and opponents of Puerto Rico's right-wing governor, Luis Fortuño of the New Democratic Party, seeing red. Although the pipeline is billed as a means to radically decrease energy costs in Puerto Rico, its opponents think that the benefits are exaggerated and instead point to the damage the project may do to the environment. Moreover, questions have been raised about the contract bidding process.

The $450 million pipeline, designed to facilitate a large-scale transition from oil to natural gas, will start in the Peñuelas-Guayanilla area on the southwest coast (where imported natural gas will be received), and end in the northwest around Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan. The problem is that this cuts diagonally through sensitive mountain forest regions, the largest on the island, home to much of Puerto Rico's biodiversity, including key areas of karst topography where more than 30 endangered species make their home.

Karst topography means land areas that are undercut by caves and underwater channels due to the long-term effect of water draining through limestone rock and other materials that, over millennia, dissolve in water (the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico is another famous region of karst topography). Many rare animal and plant species are adapted to this type of topography, with its special access to clean underground water supplies. In addition, the karst water supplies are the source of fresh water for important coastal wetlands.

Contamination of the karst water supplies is one concern; another is that the area is not uninhabited, and local farming and other populations will be exposed to possibilities of explosions and fires. There are also important archeological sites in the area.

The reason given for the pipeline is fuel economy: According to the project's sponsors, the Autoridad de Energia Electrica, the project will allow a transition from oil to natural gas fuel in six electrical generating facilities when it is up and running. This, says the government, will save between $60 and $100 million, cutting the cost of generating electricity by nearly a third. Natural gas is also considered to be cleaner.

However, a study by environmental scientist Arturo Massol and his colleagues of the organization "Casa Pueblo" (House of the People), made public on July 13, suggests that the savings will be offset by environmental damage and risks to the 200,000 people who live in the area through which the pipeline will pass too closely, according to Massol's study. Environmentalists say that there are other ways, such as green energy, that the island's high electrical bill could be brought down.

Furthermore, there is controversy over the contracting. U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, has raised questions in Congress about possible conflicts of interest between Gov. Fortuño and the biggest contractor, Pedro Ray Chacon, who has no past experience with this type of project but appears to be a personal friend of the governor. The legislative opposition is demanding an investigation.

The project is awaiting final approval from the U.S. Federal Energy Regulation Commission. On June 27, Gov. Fortuño sent a letter to federal authorities calling for authorization to be expedited; opponents of the pipeline are lobbying against it.

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