Remarks by Vice President Biden on the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative
2:33 P.M. EST
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Mr. Prime Minister, it’s a pleasure to be with you. And, Fred, the Atlantic Council has done an incredible job, and you're continued focus and commitment matters and forces everyone else to focus. And, Mack McLarty, an old, old friend, the Council of the Americas has been your -- how can I say it -- your passion for a long time. And it’s very much appreciated.
Presidents, Prime Ministers, representatives from the international community, the private sector, and -- if you excuse, as we used to say when I was a senator, a point of personal privilege, Adrienne Arsht. Where are you, Adrienne? She is -- there you go. This woman is a fellow Delawarean. We grew up together. She was seven; I was 21. (Laughter.) And she is following in the footsteps of her incredible parents in all the incredibly good things you've been doing, not the least of which is this Latin American Center you've set up. Thank you, Adrienne.
As Fred said, this is not the first time we’ve gathered to discuss energy security. And for years it’s sort of been the same story. But I want to make a point at the outset here that is different. I have been given -- how can I say it -- the authority to move this issue for us, but the President of the United States -- President Obama -- has made it absolutely clear that both the Caribbean and Central America energy and security are, in fact, primary issues for us.
My dad used to have an expression. He said, if everything is equally important to you, nothing is important to you. This is extremely important to us. It’s overwhelmingly in the interest of the United States of America that we get it right, and that this relationship changes for the better across the board. So I want you to know that the combination of those two issues is -- are paramount issues with us, equal to anything else we are doing around the world. And we are engaged a great deal, as you know.
And this is also a very propitious moment. I was mentioning this to the Prime Minister. The vice president of the IMF is here. And the IMF has made projections about growth in GDP around the world. And the United States is projected to be one of those areas of the world that is going to grow, and grow significantly at 3.5 percent or more.
The reason I say that is the combination of that, plus low oil prices, plus the plummeting costs of renewable energy gives us a moment, a window here where we will get significant support from the American public because we are doing better to invest more overseas and overseas is just across the water into the Caribbean. We are in a position that I think we should understand there’s a sense of urgency that we take advantage of the opportunities. We had great discussions downstairs, and you're going to have more here before we leave.
The fact is for years it has been the same. Economies squeezed by the high cost, making companies less competitive, crowding out other investments in the future of your countries; citizens in your countries demanding more affordable supply; expressing their discontent when they hear about investments they don't seem to see any results in; governments dependent on a single, increasingly unreliable, external supplier. Not just here, but in Europe and other parts of the world, as well.
And whether it’s the Ukraine or the Caribbean, no country should be able to use natural resources as a tool of coercion against any other country.
Energy developers come to your door with exciting ideas. But somehow deals fall apart when it comes to finding the financing. Many of you feel you can’t tolerate the rise in energy prices, given the little space you have to make reforms you know you need to make. But this is an opportunity.
That's been the story, but it doesn't need to remain that way. Ladies and gentlemen, when it comes to energy, we’re living in a new moment –- not just in the Caribbean, but worldwide.
Sometimes it took -- I can recall when I was a younger senator and we’d talk about the Information Age. By the time we’d caught up to the Information Age, it had already passed government. It had already moved well beyond.
You can talk about that in every state. The question is, how do governments keep up with fundamental changes that are taking place in the world? So it’s up to us to seize this moment and seize it together because a great deal has changed.
Let’s start with oil prices, now under $50 a barrel. This gives governments a little space to breathe, and it’s likely it’s going to remain relatively low for at least the near term, the next several years. There’s an old saying: The best time to fix a roof is when the sun is shining. The best time to fix a roof is when the sun is shining. The sun is shining now figuratively speaking. The time is now.
Renewable energy is affordable. We heard discussions downstairs just how radically the cost has been reduced for renewable energy and how it is producing competitive per-kilowatt hours.
The cost of developing wind and solar energy has fallen by 50 percent just in the last four years. We’re starting to see those technologies outcompete real coal, oil-fired generation in places like Brazil without any subsidies at all.
We have technologies in natural gas that are moving forward. And we shouldn’t expect this to be a panacea for everyone, but it’s also true there are more options at your disposal now for natural gas delivery than there have ever been -— from small-scale barge trades of LNG, to floating import terminals. And they're not just -- these aren’t just designs on paper. They exist. They operate.
You can now purchase gas on the open market from many countries, including your neighbor, Trinidad and Tobago right now. There’s also LNG exporters in the United States with licenses to export to any of your countries, whether you have a free trade agreement or not. If you want gas, go talk to them.
Meanwhile, we’re in the midst of a seismic shift in the global economy: the ascendancy of the Americas as the epicenter of energy production in the world. We have more oil and gas rigs running in the United States, than all the rest of the world combined. Mexico, Canada and the United States is the new epicenter of energy -- not the Arabian Peninsula. It is the new epicenter of energy in the 21st century.
An integrated North America, working to promote energy security beyond our borders can be a major asset for the entire hemisphere. And it’s profoundly in the self-interest of the United States to see the Caribbean countries succeed as prosperous, secure, energy-independent neighbors -— not a world apart, but an integral part of the hemisphere, where every nation is middle class, democratic and secure. It’s the first time in history that can be envisioned. You can see it if we make the right decisions.
So taken together, these changes create a moment of energy opportunity that hasn’t existed. Progress is possible. And it’s possible to begin now -- not a decade from now, but now. And that’s what we’ve discussed in our meetings today. You can set up an electric sector that uses geothermal energy, hydropower, and other sources to give the system stability.
You can max out your use of renewable energy resources like wind, solar, and biomass, diversifying your supply, keeping your foreign reserves in the bank where you need them. You can leverage energy efficiency in every sector, shrinking the amount of energy you need to keep your economy humming.
Some people out there think that it can’t be done in the Caribbean. They’re dead wrong. They are dead wrong. Not only can it be done, it is being done right now with some of your neighbors.
Look at what the U.S. Virgin Islands are doing: They’re combining renewable energy with propane to lower costs, and secure their supply, saving ratepayers 30 percent on electric bill, while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions
from the fossil fleet by 12 percent.
Solar photovoltaic facilities at the -- at the Cyril E. King Airport that the Port Authority is saving nearly $1,000 a day. That’s real money.
Aruba, which united its government, the utilities, and businesses behind a common strategy and action plan, has now brought enough renewable energy online to satisfy 30 percent of their demand, and may even reach 40 percent by the end of this year. That’s demonstrable progress. It’s happening now.
St. Lucia is breaking down the barriers to develop new investments in geothermal energy and is creating new legislation to create a national regulatory body for energy to stabilize the rules of the game and make investments more attractive to those of you who are energy suppliers here in the room.
Barbados has long been the leader in solar technology, and is poised to make major new investments in renewables.
Progress is practical, it is possible, and it is profitable. Significant improvements are within reach for just about every one of your countries. And as I said before, not a decade away. Now. Right now. If, and it’s a big if, you can summon within your systems the political will to seize the promise of this new moment.
Because, as we learned, real and lasting progress toward energy security everywhere in the world depends more than just on spending money. Because over the last 10 years, tens of millions of dollars have been pledged and invested. But we don’t have nearly enough to show for it.
So it can’t just be about money. It has to be about doing business the right way. Government money and targeted international aid can and must be available -- is helpful, but the private sector is where the money is.
That’s why the primary goal of this summit isn’t to put up another solar panel, or sign another gas contract. It’s to help you create the conditions where your countries can attract private-sector investment. And it’s there. They're ready. From hedge funds to private energy companies. This may not be easy, but it’s also not a mystery how it works. The geography may be different. The size and scales of each of your countries may vary. But there are certain core ingredients that remain the recipe for success moving toward energy independence.
First and foremost, you have to deal with corruption. You need to be choosing projects because they’re the most competitive -— not for other reasons. You need update and modernize not just the physical infrastructure, but your institutions and regulations. Rules need to be clear, transparent, and fair. Many of you are already doing that and way ahead of the curve.
Enforcement needs to be predictable under the rule of law. Courts need to adjudicate disputes fairly. You can’t bankrupt yourself on subsidies. Utilities need to be financially viable. It helps if you can harmonize your regulatory frameworks -– so that businesses can look to invest in an entire region, rather than just in a single country -- trying to navigate the unique regulations of every country in the region.
We need to talk to the stakeholders, from utilities, to generators, to consumers, to articulate a common vision and create a system that works to realize that vision.
We need to have the political will to take on entrenched interests, to better serve our people. Some of you have been told differently. You’ve been promised easy solutions over the years. But if there were easy solutions and fixes, there would have already been found by now.
We’ve learned that the countries that fare the best are those willing to roll up their sleeves and put everything on the table. They take a determined and holistic approach, with an eye to the long-term. And they make it a paramount priority to attract private investment. This is not either-or. It’s all of the above -- concessional loans, international development banks, private sector. All the above.
And I can promise you this: If you commit -- and I believe you all are committing -- to these goals, to this process, all of us here will work to support you. We’re prepared. I guarantee you we will do our part. And we can afford it. But we’re not going to waste money. We’re going to insist on
considerably more transparency, greater coordination, and changes in the regulations.
We’re not here to replace one flawed financing scheme with another. The United States and the international community
can and will do -- and we’ll be involved. We can help. We can make it less difficult but necessary steps take a quantum leap toward energy security -- the necessary steps that I’ve referenced and others.
And there’s a lot we can do –- some of which I spoke about in June in the Dominican Republic. In some cases, we can help provide financing. The U.S. government is in the process of establishing a team, a beefed-up team of Overseas Private Investment Corporation, known as OPIC, devoted entirely to the Caribbean. In the past most of our effort has been developing in other parts of the world. But this new focus, we have taken on in a shorthanded agency, an entirely new team to ensure that we focus on the Caribbean, to ensure projects can be connected to financing.
And today, OPIC will disburse its first installment, $90 million, for 34 Mega-Watt wind project by Blue Mountain Renewables in Jamaica. When construction begins in June, it will be a tangible example of what can be achieved when the public and private sector in both countries work together to meet this challenge and meet it head on.
The United States and the international community can also provide technical assistance to help countries attract investment in your energy sectors. USAID announced a $10 million program to supply energy investments in Jamaica; the U.S. Trade and Development Agency has announced three new grants to support clean energy in the Dominican Republic. We’re also looking at similar projects in other parts of the region.
We can help. We can help you build a more comprehensive model as we are working to do so -- and we're doing that as I speak, we're doing it with the government of Grenada. This is an effort to show what is possible. We’re willing to work with all of you. But we have to be focused. We can help come -- we can help convene all of us around the table to discuss and coordinate more effectively -- as I promised to do last summer, and as we are doing today, and we’ll move on beyond today.
I’ve spoken at length about what success requires from you.
Let me speak about how, the United States and the donor countries, need to change the way we do business, as well.
We all want to invest in this new future in the Caribbean.
Everyone is well-intentioned. I know it’s easier in the short run to go out and cherry pick, to do a series of one-off projects. But to be effective over the longer term, that has to change.
We donors and investors need to talk to one another. It’s important that international financial institutions are more coordinated and more focused. We need one central fora to make sure our various efforts are aligned and achieve maximum impact in the region. That's our responsibility. We have not done that thus far for you.
I promised last summer that we’d work within the international financial institutions and with others to do a better job in this coordination. The goal of this meeting today is to walk away with an agreement to create a coordinating mechanism that will maximize energy programs in the region. We support the World Bank’s proposal to create this and we hope you’ll join us in offering your support, as well.
These countries’ and institutions’ presence here at this meeting is encouraging -- an encouraging sign. Now it’s important that we back up all we’ve talked about with some real, genuine action. Because imagine what will happen if, together, we finally get this right.
You, the countries of the Caribbean, have a chance at the supply of energy that’s more resilient, more sustainable, cleaner, more affordable than you have ever, ever had.
You have a chance to reduce the number of oil spills, protect your waters, put the money you are saving into schools, hospitals, jobs, infrastructure, and manufacturing. You have a chance to harness the natural wealth of your countries; to find and fuel your economies and save your people money; free up your government budgets and without the burden of insecure supplies of energy; to expand what is possible for the citizens of the Caribbean in the century ahead.
A lot of work lies ahead. I’m not Pollyannaish about this. I know there’s a lot of work. But we have a chance.
And I’d like to conclude in the words with -- I was kidding my colleagues earlier today about Irish poets. And my good friend from Trinidad and Tobago said, you know we have a Nobel laureate. I’m going to send you his poems. But there’s an Irish poet Seamus Heaney. He wrote a poem called “The Cure at Troy.” And there’s a paragraph -- there’s a stanza in that poem that applies to where I think we all find ourselves today. He said:
History teaches us don’t hope
on this side of the grave,
but then once in a lifetime,
the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
We’ve got a chance. We got a chance to make hope and history rhyme here in terms of your economies. And the single-biggest burden that could be lifted from you right now, economically, is the cost of energy and the dependence that you still have on single suppliers. That's what we can do. It can change everything.
And I know all of you I met with today are competent, committed leaders in your country. You all have the interests of your people at heart. We share your desire. We're going to try our best to be the best partner we can possibly be in order to have you reach the objective that is within your reach, energy independence in the Caribbean.
So I thank you all for making the trip here. I’ll close where I began our early morning meeting. This meeting was planned for Miami. But it’s all the fault of Colombia that we're not there. (Laughter.) And I want to explain why. The Miss Universe Pageant took place -- (laughter) -- seriously, and all the rooms were taken up. That's because I guess the Colombians knew they were going to beat the American and end up with the runner-up being an American and Miss Universe being Miss Colombia. So I understand that. I understand that. (Laughter.) But that's the reason you're in the snow. That's the reason you're in the snow. (Laughter.)
Thanks for making the effort to be here. Love you. Thank you. (Applause.)
2:55 P.M. EST