Another chapter on the Energy and Climate Partnership for the Americas

While the world watched with empathy the tragedy that struck Poland and reacted to the fallout from the billowing smoke coming out of the unpronounceable volcano in Iceland, another chapter in President Obama’s Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) was written earlier this month in Washington. At its essence, ECPA was supposed to reconfigure US relations in the hemisphere – with energy at the start. And a new start was much needed. The hemisphere is key to US energy security, but it is also home to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who spares no opportunity to remind others of his dislike of all things American. His attitude did not help to improve relations between the US and countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador. Still, not all President Chavez does is negative. In fact, his PetroCaribe initiative – which guarantees oil supplies to countries in Central America and the Caribbean at extremely advantageous financial terms – was and is instrumental to those countries, whose energy needs are entirely met by imports. EPCA, the US administration bet, was the best vehicle to promote alternative and sustainable energy sources, and with that, ease the region’s dependency on Chavez’s largesse. In addition, EPCA would spearhead opportunities for partnerships where productive coalitions could be formed. The question is: has it delivered?

Washington spared no efforts in the organization of the April 16 Energy and Climate Ministerial of the Americas. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Nobel Prize-winning Secretary of Energy Steve Chu led the charge. They rolled out their vision in a co-authored op-ed published in the Miami Herald and each delivered artfully-crafted keynote speeches at the most public ministerial preparatory meeting. The State and Energy Departments went about town cajoling other departments to join ECPA by championing their own initiatives. The two departments also worked diligently with multilateral institutions and banks to leverage resources for studies, initiatives, and actual projects. The final touch was an invitation to Venezuela’s energy minister, Rafael Ramirez, to pay his first visit to the US in six years.

The stage was set. Friday’s energy ministerial was preceded by two preparatory meetings. The first, held at the OAS, focused on the development of sustainable energy solutions for the Caribbean. The other, held at the IDB, covered the full spectrum of energy issues – from financing to energy poverty, from efficiency to delivering cleaner fossil fuels – and was designed to serve as input for the ministerial the following day. The meeting at the OAS was mostly restricted to the official delegations, while the one at the IDB, held on Thursday the 15th, included over 500 of the hemisphere’s energy sector intellectual, government, and business who’s-who.

The hope, one assumed, was that such effort and firepower would compensate for the lack of financial resources to back up the initiatives. It would also serve to reassure the hemispheric partners that the US meant what they said at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago: this time around we are not going to lead and expect everyone else to follow. Leadership, now, was there to be taken by whoever had ideas and the vision to make them happen. And countries were free to join any initiative they desired. This would be the era of the “variable geometry.” When skeptics pointed to a similar 1994 Clinton administration energy initiative that had produced no tangible results, government officials claimed that this was a “new era” and that now “bureaucracy would not get in the way”.

And so it went. The US launched a host of new programs and joined others from the hemisphere in Brazil’s “Building with Energy Efficiency and Sustainability Program.” Other initiatives included the expansion of Mexico’s Wind Research Centre into a regional initiative and Canada’s offer to study/share sustainable practices on heavy oil and unconventional fuels extraction. There was plenty of good will but little pragmatic help to accompany it. Although the IDB announced a new trench of funding for renewable energy of $3 billion by 2012, the only initiative that delivers concrete help right now is the PetroCaribe partnership.

That was noted by the Caribbean energy ministers in the closed door session on Friday, according to witnesses. As they took the floor one by one the ministers explained to Dr. Chu that although the efforts to share ideas and best practices in energy efficiency and renewable alternatives were much appreciated, hydrocarbons fuelled their economies and solutions that included financing mechanisms were needed. To date, they continued, as Rafael Ramirez nodded in agreement, the one initiative that had delivered was Venezuela’s PetroCaribe

Clearly in spite of the US’ best intentions, good will is not enough. To consolidate a new energy and climate relationship in the hemisphere requires not just ideas but the ability to make them happen, as Chavez has done. ECPA as it is now is only a start. These are still the early days, and much like changing culture, changing relationships takes time. Meanwhile, what exists now is a version of variable geometry, where someone took leadership and willing parties joined in. Unfortunately for the US, it isn’t exactly what they had in mind.

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