A Petrotrin story

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Above: Petrotrin’s refinery, East Area FCCU in 2004. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

BitDepth#1163 for September 20, 2018

Between November 2003 and October 2005, I accepted a contractual communications role in the Corporate Communications Department at Petrotrin.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

Petrotrin was in the midst of one of its cycles of great wealth, which happened when the price of oil was at a peak and the refinery played to its strengths.

The first thing I discovered that year was about the annual bonus. I found out about it when someone asked me what I was going to do with mine.

I was puzzled. I had just arrived there.

“But you showed up for work, right?” came the reply.

So I got a pro-rated cut of that year’s handsome bonus, paid equally to all employees as negotiated by the union and calculated based on the profitability of the refinery’s operations.

I was not core business, something the men spinning oil-slicked heavy metal would never hesitate to remind “office people” of, but I got to see a lot of it, and to read the stories that were offered up about the company’s operations.

This is what I found there.

Petrotrin has always had serious structural problems, running all the way back to 1985, when Texaco decided that the refinery had run its course and left T&T.

“We didn’t want to take over Texaco,” the late Ronald Williams, State Enterprise Minister told the New York Times, “we had no choice.”

That decision rested on two intractables, the cost of importing petroleum consumables and the jobs of 3,000 employees. The purchase cost the country US$189 million, half of which was paid in product.

Thirty-three years later, only one of those challenges is left, but the past three decades have created a refinery entity that’s far more than the thousands who are directly employed by the company.

Petrotrin is now a vast web of connections spread out all over south Trinidad. Everywhere its ancient, leaky lines run, there is a fenceline community that has been drawn into its sphere of influence.

The company may be sending 3,500 employees home (at last count), but the repercussions of that decision will echo more widely and deeply than anyone can imagine.

The Petrotrin flare tower, Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

Working there, I met people across the spectrum of their operations, which are massive.

To a person, they all worked with the absolute certainty that their best efforts were directed at raising the efficiency of an installation ranked in the bottom 25 percent of refineries worldwide.

These were smart qualified people doing their best work in the service of their job as they understood it.

I have no doubt that many of the people who will be made jobless when the company is closed have been doing exactly that.

But all work has context and in many departments at Petrotrin fourteen years ago, there was a powerful disconnect between what managers claimed to be be doing and what was actually getting done.

One day, surprised at how consistently late correspondence was reaching my desk, I did a little test. In professional management, it’s called the mailroom test and it’s a quick measure of the real efficiencies of an organisation.

So I sent myself a letter. I posted it in Marabella, just outside the company’s gates. It took two weeks to reach my desk.

Let me be clear. I was paid better by Petrotrin under contract for two years than I was before or since. Not dramatically more, but consistently and predictably enough that it fundamentally changed my life going forward.

I will always be grateful for that. Yet I left without trying to get another contract. I did so rather than learn to complain about the inexplicable and, apparently, unchangeable aspects of the company which puzzled me.

You could not continuously stare at its contradictions without becoming a kind of stone.

So let me explain the legend of the Golden Panty.

According to Petrotrin lore, you woke up everyday to go to work and put on The Golden Panty.

It chafed and irritated you constantly.

You complained bitterly about it, but you never took it off, because it was made of gold.

I met senior executives there who, after a change in political parties, found themselves consigned to a cottage on the company’s verdant compound for four years, constructively dismissed, with nothing to do but sit at an executive desk.

I’d had the smallest taste of that, just one year’s worth of being sidelined by a vengeful boss and it was educational beyond measure. Just not the sort of education you seek out.

There is something powerfully destructive in corporate coventry. The 3,500 workers who are being terminated at the company are, perhaps, the very apotheosis of that.

For more than three decades, the refinery at Pointe-a-Pierre has been run, not on the basis of viable business principles or as part of a coherent, profit motivated national plan, but first out of reflex, then out of pride and finally, in the service of political expediency.

The thousands of people in the refinery and many thousands more who are indirectly dependent on its existence, including much of Point Fortin, Gasparillo and Marabella, are a significant constituency and keeping them happy ultimately became the point of the refinery’s existence.

The political courage it’s taking to shutter Petrotrin is considerable. The impact of its cauterising, as Dr Rowley described it, with all its infinitely fractal consequences, is simply incalculable and will be felt across the length and breadth of southern Trinidad.

Most of today’s 3,500 employees did nothing wrong. They probably did everything right in the context of their jobs, and are fortunate that the funds are apparently available to buffer their severance, to the tune of at least a billion dollars at last report.

Petrotrin changed many times in its 33 years of existence. Sometimes it made money, but it never made sense.

What replaces it should. The new entity, which really shouldn’t carry on the name, must honour the work of the pioneers in the petroleum industry who created a business that both supported and inadvertently smothered this country’s potential over the 158 years since commercial oil exploration began in this country.

But then, that’s probably what the Chambers Cabinet probably thought they were doing in 1985.