Latin News: Profile, Jorge Alberto Bunster Betteley – Chile’s new energy minister

8 May

This is one of my most recent profiles for Latin News, where I am interning to learn more about Latin American politics- and where they very kindly permit me to stretch my legs on all topics.

Demonstrating against Chile's ambitious hydroelectric dam project. Flickr/International Rivers

Demonstrating against Chile’s ambitious hydroelectric dam project. Flickr/International Rivers

Who is he? Bunster is Chile’s new energy minister.

Why watch him? Bunster, who was sworn in on 3 April 2012, is the fifth man to be appointed to the post since President Sebastián Piñera took office in March 2010. The energy ministry has become Chile’s most challenging portfolio, replacing education, after high fuel and energy prices sparked violent protests in the country’s extreme southern regions. Piñera has instructed Bunster to lead a new national energy strategy, calling for an increase in output from hydroelectric as well as other non-conventional renewable energy sources. However local environmental campaigners have mobilized against several projects aimed at increasing Chile’s energy production capacity. There has been strong opposition to the HidroAysén hydroelectric project, a chain of five hydroelectric plants that will affect large swathes of national parks in Chile’s Patagonia. An unexpectedly hot Southern Hemisphere summer has resulted in a severe drought since the tail end of last year and Bunster began his tenure by extending power rationing across the country, reducing the voltage from the central energy grid by as much as 10%.

Born: 17 March 1953.

Place of birth: Santiago, Chile.

Education: Bunster obtained a degree in business studies and marketing (ingeniero commercial) from Chile’s Universidad Católica in 1975. He also obtained an MBA from the IESE School at Spain’s University of Navarra in 1978.

Public Life: Bunster entered public life in 2010, when Piñera appointed him director-general of foreign economic relations at Chile’s Ministry for International Affairs, where he built a reputation for leading important free trade agreements. In March 2012 he led a delegation to Buenos Aires for a meeting with Guillermo Moreno, Argentina’s secretary for domestic commerce, to request that recently imposed trade barriers be eased. He was picked by Pinera to head up the energy portfolio because of his experience in the energy sector – and no doubt, his contacts and influence within that industry. Implementing the country’s new 30-year energy strategy and managing relationships with environmental groups against key hydroelectric projects are at the top of his agenda.

Timeline:

1979-1981: Joins Maquinarias MACO SA as Commercial Manager.

1981-1985: Joins Chilean pension fund system AFP Alameda as Chief Executive Officer.

1985-1986: CEO for ice cream manufacturer Alimentos Bresler SA.

1986-1990: Joins the Compañia de Seguros Generales Cruz del Sur SA, and insurer, as Operations Manager/Deputy General Manager.

1990-2009: Appointed CEO at publicly-listed energy and forestry conglomerate Copec SA, remaining in the post for 18 years. Copec controls nearly two-thirds of Chile’s fuel distribution market.

2010-2012: Appointed director-general for foreign economic relations at Chile’s Ministry for International Affairs.

3 April 2012: Sworn in as Chile’s energy minister following the resignation of Rodrigo Alvarez.

Strengths: Bunster has extensive experience in Chile’s energy sector and is well placed to manage the relationship between the government and energy companies. This has earned him the backing of Piñera’s ‘star minister’, Laurence Golbourne (public works) who said that Bunster’s experience in the sector was a valuable addition to the cabinet. Golborne, who served as Piñera’s first energy minister, did a good job of handling the portfolio until he was transferred in 2011. The fact that Bunster is not affiliated to any political party may also be seen as positive given that his predecessor, Alvarez, from the ultra-conservative Unión Democráta Independiente (UDI, the senior partner in the ruling coalition) resigned for “political reasons” after he was side-lined from a final round of talks that led to a preliminary agreement between the government and protestors in the Aysén region.

Weaknesses: Bunster’s appointment has been questioned by the Concertación opposition coalition amid concerns that, as a stakeholder in Copec and other locally-based energy companies including Spain’s Endesa, Chile’s largest electric utility company, he could face a conflict of interests as the head of the ministry. Copec directly competes with the state-owned oil company, Enap, while Endesa is one of the companies involved in the HidroAysén project. Bunster claims that, since being appointed, he has sold off his shares in energy firms but some reports allege that his family retains a 20% stake in AntarChile, the holding company that controls Copec. Alvarez’s predecessor, Fernando Echeverría, was forced to resign only three days after being appointed following similar accusations of conflicts of interests.

Prospects: Bunster’s experience is the government’s gain. His knowledge of the sector may well allow him to carry out the complicated mission that Piñera has set out for him. However, while he may have the President’s support in this, whether he will enjoy political support from the ruling coalition is another matter, given his lack of party affiliations. The day after Bunster’s appointment, Chile’s supreme court upheld an earlier ruling to allow the construction of the controversial HidroAysén project. This removed the legal obstacles to the project, but there is still a lot of local public opposition to this and other proposed projects aimed at increasing Chile’s energy generation capacity. While a preliminary agreement has been reached with the Aysén protestors, there is a strong possibility that Bunster will face other protests, not only in Aysén but also in other regions.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: