By Emilio Godoy
PAPANTLA, Mexico, Jan 23 2023 – A dark mole dots the brown earth, among the green scrub at this spot in southeastern Mexico. A repetitive “glug, glug,” a noise sounding like a thirsty animal, and an intense stench lead to this site, hidden in the undergrowth, where a broken pipe has created a pool of dense oil.
The smell of fuel overpowers the usual aroma of the surrounding vegetation.
The oil and natural gas leak runs freely in a well belonging to the state-run oil giant Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) in Reforma Escolín, part of Papantla, a municipality in the southeastern state of Veracruz, in the vicinity of a natural gas flare that illuminates the semi-cloudy environment and warms the already high temperature.“The infrastructure is old, they do not maintain it. When there are leaks, you hear a ‘ssssss’ and the smell is unbearable, you can’t stay in your house.” — Omar Lázaro
Far from the gaze of Mexico’s Agency for Security, Energy and Environment (ASEA), responsible for monitoring the fossil fuel industry in the country, and Pemex, the gas flares in an area dotted with oil and gas wells.
“The infrastructure is old, they don’t maintain it. When there are leaks, you hear a ‘ssssss’ and the smell is unbearable, you can’t stay in your house,” Omar Lázaro, a delegate to the municipality of the non-governmental National Indigenous Congress, which brings together native peoples and organizations, told IPS.
The local community all too vividly recalls the Jun. 4, 2022 explosion of a Pemex gas pipeline that put residents on edge and confirmed, for the umpteenth time, the potentially catastrophic impacts of fossil fuels.
Lázaro, a local musician, recalled that the leak flowed for two days, there were four fires in the affected area and the fire lasted two weeks, some 300 kilometers from Mexico City, in Papantla, (which means “place of abundant papán” – a local bird – in the Nahuatl language), home to just under 160,000 inhabitants in its extensive rural and semi-urban territory.
“In some places there was a smell of gas before the explosion. The problem was that the scrubland began to burn and there was no water to put it out. Pemex threatened that it would not take responsibility if people went in to put out the fire and something happened to them,” said Lázaro, who is also a member of the Assembly for the Defense of the Territory, which represents some 20 communities and five municipal organizations.
In essence, the gas is methane, 86 times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide (CO2) over 20 years, even though it spends less time in the atmosphere.
That means it is important to control it to curb the rise in the planet’s temperature to no more than 1.5 degrees C, according to the commitments made by the international community.
The incident in the town of Reforma Escolín is part of a pattern of gas leaks from the extraction and transportation of oil and gas by Pemex and private companies in Mexico, without enforcement by the environmental authorities of the existing regulations.
IPS reviewed Pemex databases on leaks and its prevention plans, obtained through public information requests, which point to underreporting of gas emissions – composed mainly of methane – and confirmed the evidence that leaks devastate an area where gas wells abound.
Historically, Pemex has been the biggest culprit in the gas leaks, due to the size of its infrastructure in Mexico.
After a drop between 2017 and 2019, gas explosions have been on the rise since 2020. Most of the incidents occur at hydrocarbon facilities in the states of Campeche, Tabasco and Veracruz in southeastern Mexico.
In 2020, 78 gas leaks by Pemex and its subsidiaries were registered, 85 by private companies, and 32 by the National Center for Natural Gas Control (CENAGAS), which manages the gas pipelines that belonged to the state oil company, without estimates of the resulting methane emissions, according to ASEA figures.
A year later, Pemex reported 91 leaks, private companies 74, and CENAGAS 28.
These leaks come from gas pipelines, compressor stations and other facilities that transport, store and distribute gas, infrastructure that adds up to some 30,000 facilities and 50,000 kilometers of gas pipelines.
The face of Pastora García, one of the 11 members of the Municipal Council of Papantla, reflects concern about the leaks.
“Things are bad here, there are a lot of risks. This is how Pemex works and we’re screwed. It is worrisome, because people live here,” she told IPS while she was working in Reforma Escolín, a town of some 1,000 people.
García was a municipal councillor in the small town and submitted three requests for pipeline repairs in 2011 and 2020, obtaining no response, and the leaks continued.
In and around the town, local residents grow citrus fruit, beans and corn, and raise cattle, and the pollution harms their activities. In the area, the ground looks like Swiss cheese from which gas frequently emanates, as during the great leak of 2013.
Although ASEA does not record the volumes of leaks, Mexico ranked tenth in the world in methane emissions in 2021, a list led by China, India and the United States, and which also includes Brazil, according to data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), an intergovernmental grouping of large oil consumers.
In addition, since 2019 oil and gas infrastructure has released methane into the atmosphere in Mexico, according to satellite images.
In June 2022, a group of European scientists revealed that Pemex released 40,000 tons of methane in December 2021 from an offshore platform in the Gulf of Mexico.
In the case of Pemex, one of the aggravating factors is the deliberate venting or release and flaring of gas, which has been on the rise since 2017 due to the lack of capture technology and economic incentives for its use, since it is more convenient for the oil company to simply release and burn it off.
This practice grew from 3,800 cubic meters (m3) of gas in 2017 to 6,600 in 2021, according to the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction Initiative (GGFR), made up of 20 governments, 12 oil companies and three multilateral organizations. Mexico forms part of the alliance, but Pemex does not.
The IEA measured Mexico’s emissions at 6.33 million tons of methane in 2021, equivalent to 1.8 percent of the world total, to which agriculture contributed 2.53 million, waste 2.28 million, and production and energy consumption 1.47 million. In this segment, venting and flaring represent the main factors, and in gas pipelines, leaks.
Itziar Irakulis, a researcher at the Polytechnic University of Valencia, told IPS from that Spanish city that “from the satellite we see that every time the gas flaring stops (the torch goes out), about 100 tons of methane per hour are vented. This turns the oil platform into what in the literature we call an ultra-emitter.”
The expert, co-author of a study on the release of gas from Pemex platforms, stressed that, in the face of the climate crisis, “the last thing we need is more ultra-emission events of this type.”
In November 2022, Pemex, which ranks 20th in the world in proven crude oil reserves and 41st in gas, produced 1.7 million barrels of oil per day and 4.7 billion cubic feet of gas per day (Bcf/d). Because domestic production is insufficient, it imported 555 million Bcf/d, mainly from the United States.
Anaid Velasco, research coordinator at the non-governmental Mexican Center for Environmental Law (CEMDA), described the “important challenges” in accounting for and curbing methane emissions.
“There is more talk about methane, but there is still no public policy. This disconnect between what is said and what is done has to do with not creating more responsibilities that could be binding, in order to apply an energy policy based on fossil fuel sources. They don’t want to generate a greater regulatory burden” for the oil industry, especially Pemex, she told IPS.
ASEA partially applies the regulation to control methane emissions, which is why Mexico faces hurdles to meet its Nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The regulation was supposed to enter into force in December 2019, after it was drafted in 2018. But in July 2020, under the pretext of the COVID-19 pandemic, ASEA postponed its application for 19 months, until the end of January 2022.
As of August 2022, 18 companies, including the subsidiaries Pemex Exploración y Producción (PEP) and Pemex Logística, had presented to ASEA their program for the prevention and comprehensive control of methane emissions from the hydrocarbons sector, the fundamental component of the regulation.
The state Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) had not delivered its plan.
Between 2017 and October 2022, ASEA imposed 26 fines on state-run and private companies totaling 3.83 million dollars, of which they have paid 3.29 million, without specifying the reason, which means it is not clear if the fines targeted methane emissions.
From 2017 to 2021, it fined Pemex Transformación Industrial three times for undisclosed reasons, which the company appealed.
But ASEA did not investigate the two fires on the surface of the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by methane leaks in July and August 2021, according to its own records. After the explosion in Reforma Escolín, a group of residents filed a complaint with ASEA, to no avail.
Pemex abandoned its plan to reduce gas flaring in its fields and the ministry of energy blocked the application of regulations in this regard, as reported by the British news agency Reuters throughout 2022.
In August, the state-run National Hydrocarbons Commission, the regulator of the oil industry, fined Pemex about two million dollars for excessive gas flaring at the Ixachi oil and gas field in Veracruz.
In 2021 Mexico signed the Global Methane Pledge, aimed at cutting emissions by 30 percent in 2030, from 2020 levels. But the country has not yet set a specific goal.
Along these lines, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who supports fossil fuel energy over renewables and promotes Pemex, announced in June 2022 that the oil giant would invest two billion dollars, with international aid, to cut methane emissions by 98 percent.
But there is no detailed plan to reach that target, beyond Pemex’s previous program to curb them.
In its methane control plan, obtained by IPS through Mexico’s freedom of information act, the oil company set an annual reduction goal in the Cantarell field, the country’s biggest, in the Gulf of Mexico, of four percent between 2017 and 2022. and calculated that emissions totaled 27,175 tons per year. But it is not known how much progress has been made towards this target.
However, the oil company uses an emission factor – the average amount of a pollutant coming from a specific process, fuel, equipment or source – instead of a measurement at the source site.
For the Ku Maloob Zaap field, the country’s second-largest, there are no measurements. The highest estimate comes from the Macuspana-Muspac deposit, located between the states of Chiapas and Tabasco, which emit 199,222 tons, followed by the Poza Rica Altamira Reynosa deposit – between Veracruz and Tamaulipas – with 73,352 tons; the Nejo Olmos field in Tamaulipas (53,395 tons); and Samaria-Luna in Tabasco (52,669 tons).
These emissions come from equipment, gas pipelines, compressors, leaks and venting. Pemex, which did not include infrastructure in other areas of the country, estimates decreases between four percent and 25 percent over a period of six years.
Throughout 2023, public and private companies must submit their annual reports to ASEA.
For the Cantarell deposit, the oil company ordered a halt to the flaring of 80 million Bcf/d, equivalent to 72.74 tons of methane. In addition, PEP applied measures to reduce flaring by 291 billion Bcf/d.
As natural gas for consumption in Mexico continues to be imported via pipelines and burned in combined-cycle power plants that also use steam, methane emissions will also continue, as occurred in the United States.
In places like Reforma Escolín, people have not gotten used to living among time bombs and are only asking that the leaks be repaired, although opposition by the local community is waning.
Lázaro lamented that “After the accident, some community assemblies were held, but the social mobilization dwindled, undermined by the local authorities.”
Without fighting methane emissions, Mexico will have a hard time reaching its Nationally determined contributions, presented to comply with the Paris Agreement on climate change, signed in 2015.
Velasco the environmentalist doubts that Mexico will meet its commitments. “They set goals because there is a lot of international interest. It is good that they make commitments, because it gives us tools to monitor the situation and demand compliance. If Pemex receives financing, we don’t know how it will execute it. Transparency and traceability are needed,” she said.
Spanish researcher Irakulis said maintenance and continuous flaring prevent ultra-emissions.
“It is true that the flares already have other types of emissions associated with them, and there are more environmentally friendly ways than flaring to treat the excess gas obtained from oil extraction. A significant reduction in emissions can be realistic as long as they invest in improving the maintenance of the facilities,” she stated.
In Reforma Escolín, the only option seems to be the dismantling of the gas infrastructure, which is impossible. “Pemex says there is no money. We have not seen machinery to replace the pipeline, they are not doing anything. Where are we going to go? We live here, and we’re staying here,” said García the town councillor.