Mexico's Vicente Fox to discuss broad energy plan with counterparts

Mexico's plan to build a multibillion-dollar oil refinery in Central America to help reduce prices at the pump across the region will dominate a one-day energy summit in this resort city. On Tuesday, Mexican President Vicente Fox will meet with his counterparts from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and the Dominican Republic to discuss a broad energy plan that is being called the region's biggest project since the Panama Canal.

The assembled leaders are expected to approve a sweeping energy project that calls for the construction of the oil refinery, as well as a plant for liquefied natural gas, a hydroelectric dam and a gas pipeline stretching from Mexico to Panama. An overhaul in the region's electric power grid also is proposed.

Fox said last month that the total project would likely cost US$7.5 billion (Ђ6.4 billion), but his foreign secretary, Luis Ernesto Derbez, said Monday night it could cost as much as US$9 billion (Ђ7.7 billion). He ducked questions about why cost projections have increased.

But another top official in Cancun for the summit, Panamanian Deputy Secretary of Trade Manuel Jose Parades, suggested that the cost for the proposed refinery had risen from a bit more than US$3 billion to US$4 billion (Ђ3.4 billion).

The energy plan, which should take four years to complete, will be the region's largest project since the Panama Canal, Derbez said. "The project is much more than a refinery," he said. "It's an integration of the region's energy systems."

Derbez refused to say where the refinery might be built, but officials from Mexico's Foreign Relations Department said last week that Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama were possible sites. When asked about environmental concerns, Derbez said activists should back the energy plan because a new refinery will ultimately lead to production of cleaner-burning fuels in the region.

Central America, which relies on imported fuel for nearly all of its energy needs, has been stung recently by high oil prices and desperately needs new energy sources.

Derbez said that studies necessary for the implementation of much of the energy plan will not be ready until the middle of next year at the earliest, and that Mexico hoped to convene another summit next May in order to kick off the plan. Guatemalan Deputy Foreign Relations Secretary Carlos Ramiro Martinez said he hoped the Cancun talks would speed that process up.

The summit is also expected to produce an agreement creating a regional oversight commission that would strive for greater continuity in energy regulation and distribution in Mexico and Central America, as well as Colombia and the Dominican Republic, reports the AP. I.L.

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