Mexico oil spills reflect crumbling network

Fishermen and workers of Mexico's state-owned oil company, Pemex, work Jan. 12 to contain an oil spill on the Coatzacoalcos River in eastern Mexico.Dario Lopez-Mills / AP file
/ Source: news services

Mexico's state-owned oil monopoly Pemex said it needs around $3 billion for urgent pipeline repairs, as it grappled to clean up a spill this week — its fourth in two months.

Pemex chief Luis Ramirez said Wednesday during a visit to the latest spill that the sum -- equivalent to a quarter of what Pemex spends annually on exploration and production -- could fund a six-year maintenance program for its pipeline network.

Ramirez earlier acknowledged that “we have a very serious maintenance backlog,” getting only about $1 billion a year for maintenance from the government even as half the pipelines reach the end of their 30-year design lifespan.

Already under fire for three messy crude oil spills since October, Pemex on Tuesday reported a spill of naphtha, a light hydrocarbon fuel used in the petrochemicals industry, from a pipeline in the Gulf of Mexico state of Veracruz.

Pemex said 18 people had to be treated for exposure to toxic fumes from the spill, which occurred near the town of Agua Dulce and close to a busy highway.

Television pictures showed two dozen dead cows, which Mexican media said had died from drinking polluted water.

Pemex said it would supply bottled water to local residents until it could be sure underground water reserves were safe to drink, and added that it hoped the pipeline would soon be operational again.

However Mexico’s environmental agency said it was ordering the pipeline closed until Pemex could provide a report on the cause of the leak, details of how it was clearing up the spill and prove the pipeline was working properly.

Greenpeace recently lashed out at Pemex over the state of its 33,000 miles of pipelines, saying high levels of corrosion meant that “the risk of an environmental catastrophe is imminent.”

Around half of Pemex’s pipelines are more than 30 years old and are becoming corroded due to constant use.

Explosion earlier in month
In Coatzacoalcos, Pemex supervisor Alejandro Mendoza gazes out at a pipeline that dumped thousands of barrels of crude into the local river.

“It’s as old as I am,” he notes. “It was built in 1976, the year I was born.”

Created out of a nationalization of the oil industry in 1938, Pemex hasn’t built a refinery since 1976 — the height of the last oil boom — and its infrastructure is literally crumbling, causing spills like the one in Coatzacoalcos on Dec. 22.

A week later, on Dec. 31, thousands of gallons spilled from a pipeline in neighboring Tabasco state. A week after that, on Jan. 11, a gas well exploded in the nearby village of Tlacuilolapan.

No injuries were reported in the Jan. 11 blast, but four people were killed and more than two dozen burned in a June 2003 rupture and explosion of a pipeline farther west, in the town of La Balastrera.

“We’ve lost all confidence. We’ve lost all our peace of mind,” said Sara Romero Reyes, whose husband, Diego Dominguez Arenas, has scarring across his face, arms and back from the 2003 explosion.

Asked what Pemex should do, Romero Reyes said, “They should just go away, take their pipelines, go.”

'We live in fear'
In Tlacuilolapan, Josefina Bautista, a mother of eight, pointed to the gas well that exploded 200 yards from her house on Jan. 11, and said “We live in fear. We can’t sleep at night.”

Wildlife rehabilitator Rebeca Dmytryk washes a pelican that was contaminated with crude oil at an animal treatment center set up by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico Tuesday Jan. 11, 2005. Beaches and wildlife in eastern Mexico were mucked by oil after an explosion in a pumping station ruptured a pipeline, dumping 5,000 barrels of crude into a river that flows into the Gulf of Mexico last December.(AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)**EFE OUT**Dario Lopez-Mills / AP

Lina Roma Gonzalez, 62, recalled how her riverfront yard in Coatzacoalcos flooded with oil on Dec. 22. “You couldn’t eat because the smell of the oil got into the food,” Roma Gonzalez said. The spill injured hundreds of birds and other animals and shut down the fisheries for months to come. “You couldn’t breathe because the fumes burned your throat.”

It all marks a change from the traditional acceptance of the company along the Gulf coast, where Pemex traditionally has provided the best jobs.

“Pemex is a necessary evil. It harms us, but it is good for many people. It builds roads, hospitals, schools,” said fishing cooperative leader Rosendo Quintana, 40, who expects about 1,000 fishermen will be out of work because of the spill.

Closures ordered
Jose Luis Luege, the attorney general for environmental protection, called the accidents “a giant warning light” and has threatened to shut down dangerous ducts even “if it means shutting down gasoline to half the country.”

On Jan. 16, Luege’s agency closed a corroded, aging export pipeline that spilled 3,000 gallons of oil in Tabasco on Dec. 31. The next day, his office ordered the Tlacuilolapan well closed because Pemex hadn’t carried out environmental impact or safety studies.

Pemex hands over all its income to the government, which depends heavily on oil revenue. Congress returns some of the money to fund maintenance, but 85 percent of the 2005 budget is earmarked for badly needed exploration.

Damian Garcia, an environmental officer for Pemex’s refinery division, said that the company can continue to patch the existing infrastructure, “but in the long run it’s more expensive. Every emergency like this costs a lot of money.”

Exploration is the top priority. “If we don’t exploit potential deep-water reserves, within 10 years we could become an oil-importing nation,” said Energy Secretary Fernando Elizondo.

The company is expected to produce 3.44 million barrels a day of crude oil in 2005, exporting about 1.9 million barrels a day at a projected average price of $27 per barrel. That makes Mexico the world's ninth largest oil exporter, with much of its oil going to the United States.

But even with reserves down to about 18.9 billion barrels and production expected to start falling steeply in 2006, laws limit Pemex’s ability to form alliances with private firms experienced in drilling the deep waters of the Gulf, where the biggest reserves are believed to lie.

'Nobody's in charge'
And even outside the swamps of the Gulf coast, Pemex seems to flounder in a bureaucratic morass, with responsibility for ducts split between the company’s divisions — refineries, gas, exploration and production.

“Nobody’s in charge of the pipeline system. Nobody is accountable for it,” said George Baker of the Houston newsletter Mexico Energy Intelligence.

Pemex also refuses to make maps of its pipeline system available to many other authorities, apparently because it fears thieves who frequently steal gasoline by tapping ducts.

And the company, accused of funneling money to the former ruling party’s 2000 campaign, has other problems. In November, Raul Munoz Leos resigned as head of Pemex after accusations he borrowed company money to pay for his wife’s plastic surgery and he agreed to give the oil workers’ union nearly $700 million in benefits.