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Another Day, Another Federal Intervention Spat for Puerto Rico

‘The people of Puerto Rico are not property,’ witness says at Natural Resources hearing

Rep. Rob Bishop called a Natural Resources Committee hearing to scrutinize the crisis at Puerto Rico’s “atypical” electric power company. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Rob Bishop called a Natural Resources Committee hearing to scrutinize the crisis at Puerto Rico’s “atypical” electric power company. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Exactly 120 years to the day after U.S. troops first landed on Puerto Rico, a debate over the island’s future played out once again in Washington. This time, all eyes were on its energy crisis.

Of the five witnesses who spoke Wednesday at a charged congressional hearing, only one was Puerto Rican, after Governor Ricardo Rosselló refused to attend.

“Puerto Rico and the people of Puerto Rico are not property,” said Eduardo Bhatia, minority leader of the island’s pro-commonwealth party, as he addressed the House Natural Resources Committee.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa pushed back. “I have a great respect for the people of Puerto Rico and I want to see them prosper, and making that argument does not help other Americans to see your cause,” the California Republican said.

The hearing fell on a significant date for Puerto Rico — July 25, once known as Occupation Day and then renamed Constitution Day after the island approved its own commonwealth constitution 66 years ago.

And it came just hours before a congressional delegation led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi left D.C. to check in on recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria, which decimated the island’s energy grid. 

Political leaders have been sparring over what should happen to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority — or more to the point, who should oversee its recovery.

The island’s sole energy provider, also known as PREPA, has struggled with crippling debt to bondholders. Some worry the federal government will try to step in and take over, handing control to the Department of Energy.

That could feel like history repeating itself. Puerto Rican leaders have clashed with the Natural Resources Committee as the island’s larger debt crisis unfolds. Tensions spiked in 2016, when Chairman Rob Bishop pushed through a bill — PROMESA, or “promise” in Spanish — that put an unelected federal oversight board in charge of a bankruptcy-like process.

Events since then haven’t sat well with the island’s governor.

“The Government of Puerto Rico should be primarily responsible for any decisions that impact our citizens for many generations,” wrote Rosselló in a pointed letter he sent to the committee this week. “Any new federal intervention at PREPA could jeopardize … our transformation of the electric system.”

The governor may have been a no-show Wednesday after demanding — and not receiving — an apology from the panel’s chairman over a “condescending” tweet, but he made his absence felt.

Even as he dismissed the entire hearing as a “political exercise,” he sent written testimony defending his plan to rehabilitate PREPA and strongly denouncing any effort by the Department of Energy to seize control.

It’s not clear whether such a move would stand up in court, as Rep. Nydia Velázquez pointed out. The New York Democrat pressed a Department of Energy official, asking him whether federalization is on the agenda.

“I’ll say it clearer then, we don’t plan to federalize PREPA,” Assistant Director Bruce Walker said.

The hearing’s other contentious moments came as witnesses laid out their visions for a long-term path for the island’s energy market. While PREPA is already moving toward privatization, Bhatia believes Puerto Rico should also open the market to new competitors and renewable sources.

“Privatizing PREPA without realizing the enormous opportunity to create a new open energy market is akin to privatizing a pay phone company in the 1990s,” he said.

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