Mexico Sticks to Natural Gas, Despite Socioenvironmental Impacts

"I use gas", announces a minibus driving along a street in Mexico City. Natural gas is becoming increasingly widely used as fuel for public transportation in Mexico, coming mainly from the United States where it is extracted through hydraulic fracturing or fracking, a technique that requires high volumes of water and toxic chemicals. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS
"I use gas", announces a minibus driving along a street in Mexico City. Natural gas is becoming increasingly widely used as fuel for public transportation in Mexico, coming mainly from the United States where it is extracted through hydraulic fracturing or fracking, a technique that requires high volumes of water and toxic chemicals. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS
  • by Emilio Godoy (mexico city)
  • Inter Press Service

"They leave us nothing," the farmer told IPS over the phone. "They tell us it's for progress, but it's their progress. We always lose out. When they drilled gas wells, they didn't fence in the areas, they didn't provide maintenance, the wells aren't well cared for. There is a lot of underground water here that can be contaminated."

Benavides lives 500 metres from the Los Ramones II Norte gas pipeline, which runs through five states and was sold in 2017 by the state oil company Pemex to two private entities: Infraestructura Energética Nova, a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Sempra Energy, and BlackRock, a U.S. investment fund.

The community of Benavides Grande and Benavides Olivares, with an area of 65,000 hectares and some 6,000 inhabitants, covers five municipalities in the state of Nuevo León, about 750 km northeast of Mexico City.

The members of the community, whose spokesman is Benavides, have been fighting for years against what they consider harassment and invasion of their collectively owned land by the oil and gas industry, and have achieved some victories in the courts.

In the vicinity of their land, Pemex drilled two gas wells in 2013 using hydraulic fracturing or fracking, a drilling technique that requires large volumes of chemicals and water to extract natural gas embedded in deep shale.

Academics and environmental organisations opposed to fracking argue that it pollutes water tables, induces earthquakes and emits greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.

In 2019, both wells experienced gas leaks, and the community demanded that Pemex seal them. "We talked to them several times, it took them a week to repair the leaks. And they haven't come back to examine them. Besides, people steal gas from the pipeline, and a tragic accident could happen," Benavides said.

Despite the social conflicts and environmental consequences, Mexico has stepped up the pace of the gasification of the country, laying pipelines and building power plants, supported by cheap imports from the United States and encouraged by the energy reform of 2013 that opened the industry to private national and international capital.

In the northern state of Sonora, the Yaqui people, one of the 67 indigenous groups living in Mexico, managed to block the construction of the private El Oro-Guaymas gas pipeline since 2017, in a campaign that generated friction among native communities and left people wounded and dead, as well as causing material damage.

The construction project "was analyzed, a consultation for public input was held, the damage was assessed and work was done to repair and mitigate the effects," Tomás Rojo, a Yaqui spokesman, told IPS by telephone from the community of Vícam. "Seven towns gave their approval, but one did not. They felt it was a risk, and I don't think the company wants to commit violence against the people."

In 2017, residents of the village of Loma de Bácum dug up pipes and prevented the completion of the 330-km-long mega-project, 18 of which run through that community.

In August, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador signed an agreement with the Yaquis to divert the route of the pipeline to skirt that area, making it possible to finish laying the pipeline.

Still an oil-producing country, but on the decline

Mexico is the world's 12th largest oil producer and 17th largest natural gas producer. It ranks 20th in terms of proven oil reserves and 37th in proven natural gas deposits. But its position in the oil industry is declining due to the scarcity of easily extractable hydrocarbons.

Since he took office in December 2018, left-leaning President López Obrador has been promoting fossil fuels. But domestic gas production is on the decline, from 6,401 million cubic feet per day (mpcd) in 2015 to 4,853 in September, as the emphasis has been on crude oil.

Exports fell from 2,700 mpcd in 2015 to 1,000 in September, and imports from 1,415 mpcd in 2015 to 843 in September, because the state-owned Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) is burning fuel oil again.

A network of gas pipelines, with 27 state-owned and private lines covering 18,889 km, has been deployed for distribution throughout the vast territory of this country of 130 million people.

In addition, the CFE is building a section in the southeastern state of Yucatan, and three others are planned to carry the fuel to the south and southeast, while another three have been blocked by opposition from local communities.

The gas is received by 48 thermoelectric, combined-cycle plants - which burn gas to generate steam for electricity - and turbogas units, both state-owned and private. And another 10 combined-cycle plants are under construction.

Another indication of the emphasis on natural gas is the number of permits for transporting gas granted by the government's Energy Regulatory Commission. There are 276 gas transport permits, of which 230 are already operational, 263 for transfer by pipeline (218 active) and 13 for semi-trailers (12 in operation).

All this is reflected in the public budget for the sector. In 2020, the CFE allocated more than 2.0 billion dollars to transport gas, and for 2021 it projects a total of 2.65 billion.

Natural gas consists primarily of methane, which is 86 times more powerful as an agent of global warming over a 20-year period than carbon dioxide (CO2). The National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change calculated a natural gas emission factor for six areas of Mexico of 2.27 kg of CO2/m3, although it is lower than the emission factors for coal and fuel oil.

Atmospheric problem

With more gas being sourced and flared, the country faces a growing problem with methane. In 2019, the country vented 4.48 billion m3, the ninth largest amount in the world.

In terms of intensity, the proportion reached 7.21 m3 per barrel of oil produced, higher than the previous record of 5.39 set in 2014, according to figures from the Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership, promoted by the World Bank with the goal of eradicating routine flaring by 2030 and made up of 17 countries, 12 oil companies, the European Union and two financial institutions.

Fossil fuels are behind methane emissions. The International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organisation of the world's largest consumers, estimated a total of 724,000 tons of methane from hydrocarbons - including 155,000 tons from gas - in 2019.

In addition, the López Obrador administration has kept fracking on its agenda, despite constant claims that it is not using the technique.

Sergio Sañudo, a professor in the biological and earth sciences departments at the private University of Southern California, told IPS that "there has been a setback under this government. Mexico continues to do the same old thing. It generates complete dependence on the United States, and when the U.S. closes the valve, what will Mexico do? Mexico ties itself to hydrocarbons and that serves as an outlet for the gas."

The solution, he continued, lies in the United States abandoning fracking so that Mexico would not import more fuel and would promote renewable energy sources.

Benavides says his community is very aware of the climate crisis, because it has seen the changes. "There have been hailstorms, temperature changes, there is little rain," he said. "These are things we haven't seen before. For everything that happens, the earth will get back at us. For how many months did that gas go into the atmosphere, because of the leaks?"

Sañudo urged Mexico to distance itself from natural gas. "It is not a fuel for the energy transition to cleaner sources. It is not the panacea it was thought to be. It can no longer compete with renewables," he argued.

© Inter Press Service (2020) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service