Is The U.S. Virgin Islands A Safe Place To Invest?

Earlier this year I observed that the U.S. Virgin Islands’ Water and Power Authority (WAPA) was foolishly emulating the strategy of Puerto Rico’s sclerotic energy authority, PREPA, of running up debt, refusing to pay creditors, and asking for more federal dollars.

But while PREPA have since made some nascent steps to improve its predicament in the intervening months, the USVI has regressed.

Energy is the epicenter of the issue. One of the WAPA’s largest outstanding liabilities, more than $150 million, is owed to Vitol, the Houston-based energy trader that built and currently operates Liquid Propane Gas (LPG) facilities the territory relies on for clean electricity.

WAPA has consistently failed to make payments to Vitol, and the USVI government, which is ultimately responsible for the public utility, has yet to intervene to address the situation. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that Vitol requested the governor of the US Virgin Islands, Albert Bryan Jr., help resolve its standoff with WAPA but the Governor declined to do so.

It appears that Vitol has had enough. In a letter sent to Governor Bryan, it announced it would suspend service until WAPA promises to address its debt.

To generate electricity in the absence of WAPA’s power, the utility has switched entirely to diesel, which costs twice as much compared to propane, and is more polluting as well. WAPA is now scrambling to find an alternative fuel provider to keep the lights on. WAPA has discovered that the propane spot market is more expensive than what Vitol was charging, and WAPA will face logistical challenges both in transporting LPG and gasifying it into electricity.

For a utility that is supposedly in “survival mode,”waiting on diesel and propane from a different supplier could prove cost prohibitive.

Using diesel also doesn’t solve WAPA’s power problem, as the authority is still warning of a “reduction in reliability.” Since over 50 percent of the USVI’s GDP comes from the tourism sector, the territory cannot afford to provide rolling blackouts to hotels, restaurants, or retail shops without significant long-term consequences. Any slight drop in tourism could spell disaster.

The financial situation in the USVI is already fragile. A 2021 report from the Government Accountability Office notes that the USVI continues to face several significant fiscal risks, including significant pension liabilities.

Instead of seeking a solution with Vitol, or reaching out to investors of the USVI and WAPA, Governor Bryan has chosen to look to Washington for a solution. He likely found a lukewarm reception, as the Biden administration has already committed billions to the territory.

The USVI is expected to receive about $10 billion through various federal programs for the recovery from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Separately, the feds have handed over nearly $1 billion in additional federal aid, since 2020, and FEMA is apparently footing the down payment for the Island’s expensive transition to solar energy, although this will take years and fall far short of providing even a majority of the island’s power.

Even if the federal government does move to encourage the deployment of solar in the USVI, the territory doesn’t have a very strong track record of using federal aid.

Recently, Members of the House Oversight Committee have asked the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of House and Urban Development to investigate the purchase by WAPA of four generators that cost the federal government $75 million. The issue is that WAPA apparently purchased generators that do not fit within the existing propane infrastructure system. The generators have sat idle for months.

Instead of reneging on its debt, USVI should reach a deal with Vitol so that it can have a diversified and low-emission complement to its not-yet-certain solar energy plant. Besides holding up the importance of supporting the rule of law and ensuring a reliable source of energy for the future, it would also signal to future lenders that the USVI honors its contracts and is a responsible economic actor. Without that, it will remain a vassal of the federal government for the foreseeable future.