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One of the biggest complaints from anyone who follows the topsy-turvy political world of Puerto Rico—the oldest colony in the Western Hemisphere—is that very little news about the island regularly appears in the mainstream media.

That is beginning to change.

With student strikes at the University of Puerto Rico that led to a Department of Justice investigation into serious allegations of police abuse, a White House report that calls for a two-step plebiscite to finally resolve the island’s colonial relationship with the United States, and a natural gas pipeline construction proposal by Republican and pro-statehood governor Luis Fortuño, Puerto Rico is in the news more and more.

Puerto Ricans protesting the proposed GASODUCTO pipeline

Today, The Washington Post ran a rather lengthy Associated Press article about Fortuño’s controversial natural gas pet project—known locally as the GASODUCTO—and how the pipeline has found strong opposition on the island, both for its environmental issues as well as charges of political favoritism and corruption.

As the article states:

Puerto Rico’s governor is proposing to solve soaring energy prices on this oil-dependent U.S. island with a massive natural gas pipeline that would cross some of the territory’s most fragile ecosystems and archaeological sites.

Gov. Luis Fortuño has made the $450 million project a central goal of his administration and he insists it is a safe, environment-friendly way to lower utility bills. Critics say the 92-mile (148-kilometer) pipeline will tear up lush green mountains and expose people living near it to deadly explosions.

The pipeline proposal, which Fortuño has dubbed “The Green Way,” also has sparked corruption allegations. The largest contract so far has gone to an engineering firm with no pipeline construction experience that is owned by a childhood friend of the governor. Fortuño has denied any conflicts of interest.

The irony of this current project is that when Fortuño’s predecessor and pro-Commonwealth governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá proposed a shorter pipeline, the Fortuño administration helped stopped the project in mid-2009.

Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuño

The article further explains that Fortuño is playing typical politics, including the award of a bid without any public RFP process:

This time around, Fortuño is promoting an even larger pipeline proposal, despite similar resistance from activists. Even before he announced the project last August, his administration had awarded about $27 million in contracts — without public bids — for preliminary studies, according to documents filed with Puerto Rico’s Comptroller’s Office.

The documents show the largest contract, worth $9.6 million, went to Ray Engineers PSC, owned by a childhood friend of the governor, Pedro Ray Chacón. Fortuño took a ski trip with Chacón before he became governor, said Ray spokesman Jose Cruz.

While Fortuño has said contracts for preliminary research didn’t require an open bid, senators from the island’s main opposition party are demanding an investigation into how the contracts were awarded.

“This entire process raises serious concerns that lacerate the confidence that people have in their institutions,” Puerto Rico Sen. Cirilo Tirado said in a statement.

Support for the GASODUCTO has also occurred. As the articles states:

At least a dozen municipalities have approved resolutions supporting the project in concept, and it has also been touted by the National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce and the local Association of Engineers and Surveyors.

“The failure to diversify energy sources has been the kiss of death for Puerto Rico,” said the engineers’ association president, Miguel Torres.

Despite all the political debates, the pipeline only needs final approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has been awaiting studies from the island’s energy authority and analysis from other federal agencies before making a ruling.

According to government officials, island residents—who currently pay 21 cents per kilowatt hour as opposed to US mainland residents who pay just 10 cents per kilowatt hours—will save 30% in their electric bills if the GASODUCTO were to be completed.

The details of the GASODUCTO plan are as follow:

  • The pipeline would start in the southern part of the island, where, according to the AP, “where billions of cubic feet of liquefied natural gas would be imported and regasified.”
  • The pipeline would cut through the island and head eastward towards the capital of San Juan.
  • The pipeline would also run through hundreds of rivers and wetlands, as well as some of the island’s archaeological sites. As the AP article describes:

It would traverse 235 rivers and wetlands, cut through more than 60 miles (100 kilometers) of the island’s northern Karst region and possibly affect up to 32 endangered species, including the Puerto Rican parrot, crested toad and boa, according to the Corps of Engineers.

The pipeline also would cross 51 communities, placing as many as 23,000 families in danger of possible explosions, according to the nonprofit environmental organization Casa Pueblo de Adjuntas, which is leading the charge against the pipeline.

Archaeologists say the pipeline would run through historic sugar mill ruins and across petroglyphs carved centuries ago by Taíno Indians.

Opponents of the GASODUCTO held a May 1 demonstration that brought out 30,000 demonstrators. In addition Casa Pueblo has also launched an online petition, which has generated over 8,000 signatures so far. The petitions can be viewed online on this link.

US Congressman Luis Guitérrez

The final twist is all this is the ongoing political battle between Repulican Fortuño, seen as one of the new Latino darlings of the FOX NEWS circuit, and Illinois Democrat Luis Gutiérrez, a Puerto Rican who has been a public critic of the Fortuño administration, having lambasted Fortuño on the floor of Congress a few times this year.

As the article states:

[Gutiérrez] has called the governor’s publicity push for the pipeline, which includes “Green Way” billboards erected around the island, an “Orwellian ad campaign.”

Gutierrez noted that as a gubernatorial candidate, Fortuño had said it would be a “grave mistake” to depend on natural gas.

“Now, he enthusiastically supports not just gas pipelines, but a much bigger, more environmentally disruptive and more expensive pipeline,” Gutierrez said.

Fortuño responded by reminding the congressman that natural gas kept him warm during the bitter East Coast winter.

“I hope he’s not pretending,” Fortuño said, “that he and the people who are in Congress have more rights than those of us who live in Puerto Rico.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Asssociated Press article made several typographical errors in the spellings of Fortuño, Vilá, and other Spanish surnames with accents and tildes. We edited those corrections in our blog post.

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