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How Green Is Puerto Rico’s Via Verde?

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Image from the Karst Region, one of the areas that the Via Verde natural gas pipeline will intersect. (Photograph by Sailing Nomad/Flickr)

High electricity costs have troubled Puerto Ricans for years, but the proposed solution from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) has raised concerns among citizens and environmental groups.

The $450 million Via Verde project calls for a 92-mile natural gas pipeline carrying natural gas from the island’s main plant in the south to other plants in the north. The plan is part of Puerto Rico’s goal to reduce its current dependency on oil, which is responsible for 68 percent of the island’s current power generation, and rely instead on a combination of natural gas and renewable energy sources. The Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA) predicts that Via Verde will lead to a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, PRFAA estimates the pipeline will help reduce electricity costs from 21 to 15 cents kWh by 2012.

But not everyone is convinced Via Verde, which translates to “Green Way,” is actually so green, and the project has met with numerous protests and petitions to stop construction.

What began as a 42-mile southern pipeline, proposed by former Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vilá (2004-2008), blossomed into a comprehensive energy reform strategy by current Gov. Luis Fortuño, who made Via Verde part of his political platform.

“We have adopted an energy reform that will help us reduce our excessive dependence on expensive and environmentally harmful oil, in favor of cleaner, safer, healthier alternative sources, such as natural gas and renewable energy sources, like, solar and wind,” Fortuño said in his State Address in February this year.

PREPA and Skanska, the Swedish company that won a $74 million contract to build the pipeline, are still waiting for approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin an estimated one year of construction, which critics say would have a significant impact on Puerto Rico’s environment.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, this project “will impact 235 river and wetland crossings” across 1,672 acres and will transverse the island “from the EcoEléctrica Liquid Natural Gas Terminal in the municipality of Peñuelas, to the Cambalache thermoelectric power plant in the municipality of Arecibo, then east to the Palo Seco power plant facility in the municipalities of Toa Baja and San Juan.”

The pipeline’s route would also clash with 106 kilometers of the Karst region, a geological formation that covers one third of the island’s territory and home of the largest Northern wetland. This aquifer supplies more than 25 percent of the total water demand in the country for domestic or agricultural use. Nevertheless, PREPA assures in its Final Declaration that any negative effect will only be temporary during the installation of the main tube.

The document also estimates that three archeological sites and 31 species of plants and animals could be potentially adversely affected. Due to the project specifications, migratory birds and aquatic species living in wetlands will be affected by the deforestation and construction noise, as well as the water turbidity. Nevertheless, the declaration specifies that the PREPA will be working on a mitigation and compensation plan to reforest areas and to help relocate these species once the construction is over. An estimated 1,191.3 acres of land would be cleared.

With the recent pipeline explosions in California and Texas, environmental groups such as Casa Pueblo have tried to raise awareness of the potential damage of this construction.

Casa Pueblo also questions whether Via Verde is an efficient plan to lower Puerto Rican electricity costs. According to a 2009 study the group commissioned, “Estimado de reducción del precio de venta de la electricidad en Puerto Rico” (“Estimated cost reduction of electricity in Puerto Rico”), Agustin Irizarry Rivera and Gerson Beauchamp Baez of the University of Puerto Rico concluded that the pipeline would have resulted in a savings of just 1.2 cents per kilowatt hour, after factoring in the costs of constructing and maintaining the pipeline; adding natural gas-fired plants; and the toll to be paid to EcoEléctrica for the use of its installations. Casa Pueblo also questions whether any achieved savings will actually make it to citizens’ electric bills. Of course, factoring in new construction alongside established plants is not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison of costs, but the study does highlight the up-front investment required before any significant savings could be achieved.

The government, on the other hand, is not wavering from its support for the project. Gov. Fortuno made it clear in his State Address by saying that Via Verde “will help us use natural gas as an alternate source of energy, energy that is cleaner, safer and cheaper than oil so we can finally see a reduction in our electricity bill.”