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  • Writer's pictureLéandre Noël

Puerto Rico’s (Un)natural Disaster: Energy Coloniality and the US


Written by: Léandre Noël

Edited by: Shelby Deegan


Introduction

On September 20th 2017, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, causing tremendous damage to the country, and sinking Puerto Rico even deeper into their economic crisis. With 155-mile per hour (mph) winds and widespread flooding, the hurricane knocked out the precarious power grid of the island. It has been ranked as the worst blackout in US history and the second worst in the world (Smith-Nonini, 2020). For months, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) failed to fix the destroyed power grid, leaving over 99% of the population without access to electricity (over a year for some). In addition to inconsistent or no electricity, many residents lacked access to potable water, facilitating the spread of water-borne illnesses (Funes, 2017).


Overview of Puerto Rico’s Political Context

Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States (US), under the status of Commonwealth. This goes back to 1917, nineteen years after the US annexed the archipelago. Soon after, the American Congress enacted the Jones Act, a law providing the collective naturalisation of the island’s inhabitants. According to the Jones Act, US citizens or permanent residents must build, own, and operate any ships that carry goods transported by water between US ports. Its primary goal is to promote and protect the American maritime industry. It resulted in higher costs of shipping goods for Puerto Rican businesses, hence hindering the island’s economic development. The Jones Act is an illustration of the deep history of Puerto Rico’s colonial condition, fueling their economic crisis, and delaying food and other aid’s delivery to the island in times of crisis (García-López, 2018). Another example is Operation Bootstrap, whereby American industries were encouraged to invest on the island through tax exemptions and the advantages of low wages. This paved the way for an economic, and more specifically, oil dependency on the US (Thiry, 2019). The cheap oil provided allowed this operation, which scholars refer to as "fossil colonialism" (Smith-Nonini, 2020). With this Operation, the US prevented economic and energetic competition with neighbouring countries, placing themselves as the sole actor in Puerto Rico’s economic development. This evokes the long history of energy politics in Puerto Rico and how embedded it is in the US’s colonial discourse. 


Hurricane’s impact on the energy crisis and marginalised communities

The responses to the hurricane-caused power outages differed across regions. Geographical patterns exhibit that electricity returns faster in metropolitan areas, which are often also the wealthiest regions (García-López, 2018). One might consider this quicker response in cities justified as metropolitan areas are the most populated regions and therefore the most people can be served by electricity in these regions. Puerto Ricans in the countryside have always faced disparities in access to vital services. The hurricane deepend the disparities by neglecting the rural communities' recovery access to drinkable water and electricity. However, this is not an isolated case of energy marginalisation in Puerto Rico, where energy production often results in the increased marginalisation of communities. Indeed, a main environmental injustice related to energy production in Puerto Rico is the negative impact of coal production on neighbouring communities. A prominent example of this has been the health impacts of coal ashes produced by the Applied Energy Systems (AES) coal power plant in the southern town of Guayama. Since the 1990s, AES has been disposing the ashes illegally throughout marginalised communities of the south region (García-López, 2018). Although not considered hazardous waste by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), many studies have shown that this toxic waste disposal correlates with high rates of health problems in the region. The combination of issues faced by Puerto Rico created a deep crisis. PREPA was over 7 billion USD in debt due to decades of mismanagement. About 98% of energy production came from outdated fossil fuels facilities transmitted to aboveground pipelines (García-López, 2018). Smith-Nonini also points out that the case of Puerto Rico is worsened by oil dependency and a "low gross-domestic-product (GDP) to debt ratio," (2020) which hampers the shift towards renewable energy. Clearly, the energy crisis faced is multifaceted and not solely an outcome of the hurricane.


Neo-colonialist approach to the disaster

In her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Klein argues that economic and political elites often exploit moments of crisis and shock, such as natural disasters, wars, or economic crises, to push through neoliberal economic policies (market-oriented reform) and advance their own interests. They are often controversial and undemocratic.


Stemming from Klein’s disaster capitalism thesis, De Onis (2018) argues that an “emergency manager effect” takes place in these moments of crisis. Colonial governance discourses are at the heart of this management strategy, with their portrayal of  local places and people as unable to solve the crisis without outside help. According to De Onis, this idea stems from racist and colonial binaries of "inferior/superior, uncivilised/civilised, and docile/dominant" (2018). This idea of colonial superiority results in emergency response management decisions being made by overseers and outsiders, who rarely consider local knowledge and communities. In Puerto Rico, this form of neo-colonialism and imperialism is an evolution of colonisation practices from territorial colonisation to discursive colonisation (Shome, 1996). This can be understood as the shift from colonial control on the territory to a “system[s] of discourse by which the ‘world’ is divided, administered, plundered, by which humanity is thrust into pigeonholes, by which ‘we’ are ‘human’ and ‘they’ are not” (Shome, 1996: 42). Yet, territorial colonisation has not fully disappeared and is taking another form to assert the US's imperial aspirations through the presence of a high number of military bases, highly polluting corporations, or even exceptions made by the EPA to federal rules in Puerto Rico's territory (García-López, 2018).


Linguistics and energy coloniality

In the case of Puerto Rico and the US’s energy relation, it is more accurate to talk about coloniality and not colonialism. Arising from De Onis’ lingo, energy coloniality encompasses better the political relation between the two actors (2018). Energy coloniality refers to the colonisation of people and places in order to take control of energy, ranging from human to energy sources. The arguments put forward are the importance of considering Puerto Rico as inclusive of the US diaspora and Latin America community, and allowing for the concept of energy coloniality to apply to territories, nation-states, and First Nations, facing ongoing battles with energy-coloniality (De Onis, 2018).


An (Un)natural disaster

Understanding the issues at stake, it now appears legitimate to wonder if we can really consider Puerto Rico’s current energy crisis the result of a natural disaster. It should be noted that this argument can be made for natural disasters occurring all over the globe. Claims of “natural disasters” are not objective. They overlook the role of human (in)actions in altering the climate, but also the large inequalities and the responsibility of the part of the world’s population that emits the most greenhouse gases (De Onis, 2018). Neglecting responsibility does not allow for the consideration of the unequal impact of climate change on low-income and indigenous communities. During the crisis, a popular saying among Puerto Ricans was ‘‘hurricanes are natural, but disasters are political’’. The preexisting institutions and discourses and the responses to the crisis are what cause disasters. 


The way forward

Puerto Rico’s situation has not improved much since the disaster. Out of the 28 billion dollars obligated by the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Puerto Rico has only used $5.3 billion (19%) of available funding (US GAO). The aid was used for emergency work such as debris removal, but no long-term investments to rebuild and improve the island’s infrastructures. The slow recovery is worsened with hurricanes and other natural weather events that keep hitting Puerto Rico, causing more damage. The colonial influence of the US hampers the ability of the territory to move forward. Renewable energies are Puerto Rico’s major path forward to move away from fossil colonialism. The Puerto Rican climate offers potential for a power grid based on renewable energies, which could allow for fewer inequalities and potentially help the territory avoid neo-colonialist discourses and practices from the US.


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References:


De Onís, C. M. (2018). Fueling and delinking from energy coloniality in Puerto Rico. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 46(5), 535–560. https://doi.org/10.1080/00909882.2018.1529418


Funes, Y., & Funes, Y. (2021, April 1). Puerto Rico had towering landfills and coal ash pollution. Then, Maria hit. Grist. https://grist.org/article/puerto-rico-had-towering-landfills-and-coal-ash-pollution-then-maria-hit/


García-López, G. (2018). The Multiple Layers of Environmental Injustice in Contexts of (Un)natural Disasters: The Case of Puerto Rico Post-Hurricane Maria. Environmental Justice, 11(3), 101–108. https://doi.org/10.1089/env.2017.0045


Hurricane Recovery can take Years—But for Puerto Rico, 5 years show its unique challenges. (2023, June 7). U.S. GAO. https://www.gao.gov/blog/hurricane-recovery-can-take-years-puerto-rico-5-years-show-its-unique-challenges


Shome, R. (1996). Postcolonial interventions in the Rhetorical Canon: An “Other” view. Communication Theory, 6(1), 40–59. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2885.1996.tb00119.x


Smith‐Nonini, S. (2020). The Debt/Energy Nexus behind Puerto Rico’s Long Blackout: From Fossil Colonialism to New Energy Poverty. Latin American Perspectives, 47(3), 64–86. https://doi.org/10.1177/0094582x20911446


Thiry, C. (2019). A NEW ERA FOR ENERGY COLONIALISM?: A CASE STUDY ON PUERTO RICO, CRYPTOCURRENCIES AND BLOCKCHAIN. Universiteit Gent. https://libstore.ugent.be/fulltxt/RUG01/002/791/408/RUG01-002791408_2019_0001_AC.pdf

 



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