Report: Puerto Rico utility gave advantage to NFE in $1.5 billion powerplant contract
Sustainability advocates denounce actions circumvented rules, say outside investigation urgently needed
SAN JUAN — A contract to deliver natural gas to a Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) plant was awarded through a process plagued by irregularities that provided unfair advantages to a company with limited experience on the island, according to a report co-authored by Tom Sanzillo of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) and Ingrid Vila Biaggi of Cambio.
Sanzillo serves as first deputy comptroller of New York and is now director of finance at IEEFA, which examines energy markets, trends and policies in its stated mission to “accelerate the transition to a diverse, sustainable and profitable energy economy.” Vila Biaggi, a civil and environmental engineer, served as chief of staff during the administration of Gov. Alejandro García Padilla and co-founded and presides Cambio, a nonprofit that promotes what it calls “sustainable and responsible actions for Puerto Rico through awareness, education, capacity-building, and support to communities, as well as the research, design and implementation of effective and transparent policies and strategies.”
The award to swap diesel for natural gas at the San Juan power generating stations 5 and 6 was made to New Fortress Energy (NFE) after months of extensive contacts with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) that occurred outside the normal contract process, according to the authors, who say the contract is an example of the poor management and lack of accountability that have brought the public utility and Puerto Rico to its insolvent state.
“This is PREPA’s first major generation project since the hurricanes. After serious contract and other scandals, PREPA needed to build public confidence that the agency has learned lessons from past mismanagement and scandal. In this case, PREPA has failed,” Sanzillo said in IEEFA’s news release on the report.
“Based on the facts we gathered, PREPA must account for the unfair access it granted to NFE prior to the award of the contract. We found a pattern of meetings that NFE had with PREPA and its consultants that no other bidders had. The facts raise serious questions about the information given to other bidders and the way the evaluation was conducted. There are just too many red flags to let this contract move forward without more scrutiny,” Sanzillo added.
The project, completed after months of delays on May 22, “means PREPA is likely to continue to fall short of meeting renewable energy and sustainability goals as the island increases its electrical grid’s reliance on fossil fuels,” the release reads.
“PREPA officials have continuously failed to pursue much needed modernization to overhaul governance, ensure transparency and effective stakeholder participation as well as invest in distributed renewable resources” Vila Biaggi said. “Our examination of public documents shows a piecemeal, project-by-project approach by PREPA that opens the door for outside interests to push their own projects and makes it more likely that PREPA will overbuild its generation system while failing to meet renewable energy goals.”
IEEFA and Cambio said that documents obtained through litigation found Prepa “not only ignored its own rules but also failed to conduct rigorous evaluations on the environmental, safety and health impacts of the project.”
They said the bankrupt power corporation “failed to perform a fiscal analysis to show how the gas conversion would save money for consumers and failed to require those savings as part of the contract,” and that “NFE claimed the project would save $285 million annually, more than PREPA’s estimate of $150 million in savings per year and far exceeding” the estimate stated in the letter of approval of the island’s Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB).
“PREPA proceeded with the San Juan 5, 6 natural gas conversions without a desirability and convenience study even though it was required by its own regulations. It also moved forward without an environmental impact statement which would have required public participation. Neighboring communities only learned through media reports of the project after it was awarded. The risks associated with increased natural gas vehicle traffic in San Juan Bay and the evaluation of more sustainable alternatives, such as rooftop solar and storage, have been swept under the rug,” Vila Biaggi added.
The organizations listed the following report highlights:
- After receiving an unsolicited proposal from New Fortress Energy (NFE), PREPA and its financial advisor, Filsinger Energy Partners (FEP), met repeatedly with NFE before the authority drafted its request for proposals (RFP) in April 2018.
- While the RFP was being drafted, PREPA and New Fortress Energy signed a confidentiality agreement that gave NFE advance information regarding San Juan 5, 6.
- PREPA failed to tell prospective bidders about New Fortress Energy’s lease of strategically important property for the project nor did the authority inform other bidders of NFE’s unsolicited proposal and of its numerous communications with the authority.
- The authority evaluated proposals with a committee that included FEP representatives who had talked regularly with New Fortress Energy, had reviewed their unsolicited proposal, and had assisted with evaluating its environmental permitting documents.
- PREPA used an outside counsel to negotiate the contract. The firm also represented entities owned by NFE’s parent company, Fortress Investment Group.
In addition, to recommending setting up an Independent Private Sector Inspector General (IPSIG) for Prepa, the report calls for the contract to be revoked and reviewed by an official task force comprising federal and state law enforcement and regulatory agencies, such as the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Puerto Rico Department of Justice, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, U.S. Bankruptcy Court and the Puerto Rico Comptroller’s Office.
“The task force should include independent and reputable Puerto Rico and U.S. legal and criminal experts to ensure transparency and trust,” the release adds.
“The San Juan 5 and 6 project should be thoroughly vetted by an independent, third-party review authority,” Sanzillo concluded. “PREPA staff raised questions about the fairness, a member of the Energy Bureau questioned the integrity of the payment system and the FOMB said savings from the contract would be far less than anticipated. The questions mount as each new fact emerges.”
In a statement to The Associated Press, Prepa Executive Director José Ortiz said the institute “showed complete ignorance” regarding the contract and that it was approved by the island’s Financial Oversight and Management Board.