Oil and Environment in Mexico
Summary and Keywords
Before there was Mexico, there was oil. Millennia of organic matter that collapsed and liquefied into fossil fuel rested deep underground and underwater along the half-moon territorial formation that 19th-century geographers named the Mexican Gulf. Hidden by the lush tropical rainforests, marshes, and mangroves that occupied the landscape from the Pánuco River on the border between modern day Tamaulipas and Veracruz and the Bay of Campeche on the South, the oil seeped to the surface in small ponds, sometimes blackening the waters of streams and lagoons from Tabasco to the Huasteca. The human communities who inhabited that part of the globe thousands of years later knew about and utilized nature’s oozing sticky black tar.
The Olmec, who flourished in southern Veracruz from 1200 to 400 bce, collected the viscous liquid. They used it to seal canoes and aqueducts, to paint and decorate clay figurines and knife handles, to pave the floors of their homes, and to glue materials. There is evidence they boiled and cooked the petroleum for better usage, a process that would become known as refining in the 19th century. At the northern end of the rainforest, the region called the Huasteca, the Teenek also gathered the syrupy fluid from its natural springs into the 15th century and used it in ways similar to the Olmec of yesteryear: as sealant for canoes, paint for pottery, perfume, gum for chewing and teeth cleaning, illuminant for torches, and aromatic incense for religious ceremonies. Yet it was the Aztec who gave petroleum the native name that survives to this day, chapopote, the hispanicized version of tzaucpopochtli, meaning fragrant (popochtli) glue (tzauctli). As humans did globally, those who lived with chapopoteras utilized what nature created and transformed it according to their cultural needs and inventions. There is no evidence that anyone living along the coastal range of the Gulf of Mexico in the pre-Columbian era went beyond collecting the oil that percolated from the subsoil naturally. In other words, there is no evidence of extraction of petroleum by indigenous people. Oil extraction, and its environmental consequences, is a 20th-century story, layered over a 15th-century ecological revolution.
Colonization and Ecological Transformation
The arrival of the Spanish in 1492 altered the surface ecology of the Gulf of Mexico in historically unprecedented ways. Slavery and infectious disease depopulated the Pánuco River basin by 1550, leaving its grassy marshes open for the introduction of foreign species: cattle, sheep, goats, and horses. Within decades, cattle outnumbered people to the north and west of the river and became a fixture to the immediate south, the Huasteca, where conquerors became ranchers and set the animals loose to fend for themselves. A similar phenomenon took place along the gentle southern curve of the Gulf that turns into the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and Campeche. Over the three centuries of colonial rule that followed, the pattern held. Cattle became the numerically dominant species from Tamaulipas to Campeche. In comparison to the quintessential cattle ranching landscapes of San Luis Potosi and Texas, however, Gulf coast haciendas were small and less profitable. Here, ranching as an economic activity was dictated more by the lack of labor than by favorable ecological conditions. The heavy rains—including hurricanes—between June and October, the high temperatures, and the thick humidity of the coast favored the reproduction of insects and other minute fauna that pestered the herds as much as the human population.
Nevertheless, Spanish colonists did their share of deforestation, accomplished through the new labor arrangements they imposed on the human population. In northern Veracruz, they ordered indigenous laborers who survived the epidemics of small pox, influenza, and other maladies, to clear patches of forest for potreros—pasture land for cattle. In southern Veracruz, Tabasco, and Campeche, the Spaniards put indigenous labor to the task of felling mahogany and cedars for timber, but the land deforested did not go to grass and bovines alone. Here the Spanish overlords replaced the tropical rainforest with biological specimens they imported from Asia: sugar cane, citrus, rice, and bananas. The botanical substitutions signaled the inauguration of a novel ecological practice in the Americas: monocrop plantation agriculture. The decimation of indigenous populations at the hands of Spanish conquistadores and imported pathogens meant that the colonizers had to find alternative labor sources to cultivate the new crops. The solution they seized on was the importation of enslaved Africans into southern Mexico. New animals, new plants, new microbes, new people, new land uses: intentionally and unwittingly, the Spanish unleashed an ecological revolution in the New World.
At the same time, the indigenous demographic collapse at the hands of the conquerors and their pathogens had another ecological consequence. Farming declined overall along the territories hugging the Gulf of Mexico. The reduction in subsistence agriculture meant that the natural vegetation of the region took over abandoned corn fields, orchards, and homesteads. Rainforest hardwoods, swamps and mangroves, marsh grasses, and all manner of vines, palms, orchids, and similar tropical flora expanded in some areas even as they were razed in others. Although the Spanish king maintained that “the juices of the earth” (los jugos de la tierra) belonged to the Crown, the focus of colonial extraction law centered on silver and gold mining. The chapopoteras that dotted the landscape were all but forgotten until 1900.
Oil Extraction: The Second Ecological Revolution
Two foreign men, the American oilman Edward L. Doheny and the English engineer Weetman Pearson, ushered in the petroleum age in Mexico. Others came before them, but success eluded them. Nineteenth-century Mexican governments had granted interested parties permits for oil exploration in the Huasteca, around Minatitlan in southern Veracruz, in Oaxaca, and in Tabasco, but no oil spurted out from the ground. Standard Oil opened Mexico’s first refinery in 1886 in the port of Veracruz, Waters-Pierce, and a second one shortly thereafter in Tampico, but the petroleum came from the United States. Its local operations consisted of refining U.S. crude into kerosene for illumination.
Doheny and Pearson transformed the business and the ecology of the Mexican Gulf. The first, a nouveau millionaire from the oil wells of Los Angeles, descended on the Huasteca in 1900. Following nature’s trail, Doheny peeked underneath the foliage looking for seepages, which he found five miles west of the port of Tampico along the Pánuco River, the second most important river basin in Mexico (the first was Coatzacoalcos). He purchased the two haciendas that housed the chapopoteras immediately, some 448,000 acres. Pearson was not far behind. He was in Laredo, Texas, in February 1901 when the first well gushed oil at Spindletop, unleashing a rush to extraction. Knowing that nature did not recognize man-made boundaries separating the United States of America from the United States of Mexico, Pearson figured that the Mexican subsoil contained petroleum like Texas. He telegraphed his man in southern Veracruz, ordering him to acquire as much land as possible for oil. He did not ignore northern Veracruz, and in 1903 he bought out the Oil Fields of Mexico, which owned 390 square miles in Papantla, the region south of the Huasteca. He also acquired as much rainforest as he could in the Huasteca itself. By January 1906, Pearson owned approximately 600,000 acres of land and leased up to 300,000 more. While he had to compete with Doheny and a growing stream of small firms in the north, in the south Pearson monopolized potential oil lands around Minatitlan, 18 miles from the mouth of the Coatzacoalcos River, Mexico’s largest river basin. Other companies, including Standard Oil, would acquire over 1,360,000 acres in Tabasco and Campeche in the 1920s.
Throughout the Gulf, the foreign oilmen found willing business partners that made possible a massive transfer of control over land not witnessed since the Spanish conquest four hundred years earlier. Large planters in Tabasco were eager to increase their earnings from sugar cane, bananas, and cacao with lucrative oil contracts. Likewise, Huasteca owners were happy to make deals with foreign entrepreneurs who paid in cash and promised royalties on subsoil extracts. They complained that their cattle lumbered onto chapopote pools with maddening regularly, getting stuck and drowning in petroleum before they could be rescued. Indigenous land owners were less sanguine about turning over the land they owned to oil prospectors, but they were not offered choices. Particularly in the Huasteca and Papantla, where Teenek and Totonac heads of household had held on to the rainforest despite 19th-century governmental policies to dispossess them, oilmen met resistance to land loss with violence. Foreign oil companies thus came into possession of a significant portion of the Huasteca in the first decade of the 20th century, making it the first tropical rainforest in the Americas to experience the full impact of oil extraction.
The changes in land tenure implied in the wholesale alienation of the rainforest to foreign oil companies meant radical shifts in land use as well. The Huasteca became the site of the first and most extensive ecological transformation because one of Pearson’s wells at San Diego de la Mar, some seventy-five miles south of Tampico and a few miles from the Tamiahua lagoon and sand dunes that blocked the open waters of the Mexican Gulf, exploded on July 4, 1908. With unexpected force, nature confirmed to the world that Mexico’s subterranean geology was rich in liquid black gold. The “gusher” also portended something more sinister: massive environmental destruction. Within minutes of rising to the surface, the fountain of oil twelve hundred feet high caught fire. No one in the Huasteca had experienced fire like this before. Farmers used fire to clear plots of land for agriculture and lightning sparked fires during the rainy season, but those were manageable. The conflagration at the well site was different. The earth sunk into two giant holes, gaping mouths that promptly changed the name of the location to Dos Bocas. The twin craters filled with burning oil and overflowed in minutes. A river of flaming petroleum ran toward the lagoon, scorching plants and animals in its path, igniting the lagoon until the current-on-fire reached the Gulf of Mexico. No one could put out the fire, although men tried. For fifty-seven days the well and spilled oil burned, until the fuel was spent. Pearson lamented losing ten million barrels of oil, the greatest oil spill in the western hemisphere to date and the most devastating oil fire in American history.
For oilmen, however, the environmental calamity was a clarion call. Hundreds of companies, including Standard Oil, Gulf, and Shell, rushed to northern Veracruz and Tampico to carry out the transformation of the rainforest into “the Golden Lane.” From Ebano in San Luis Potosí, to the ports of Tampico and Tuxpan, thousands of foreign workers and Mexican migrants recruited by the companies felled the forest, razed the mangroves, and flattened the sand dunes to lay out the infrastructure that oil extraction demanded. By 1921, Mexico became number two in global oil production. Over fifty camps, twenty-eight terminals, some 2,000 miles of pipeline, roads, railroads, telegraph lines, workshops, derricks, storage tanks, open pit oil reservoirs, pumping stations, wharves, and twenty refineries, both large and small, replaced nature. Across the Huasteca, wells burst with extraordinary force, their hazardous nature enhanced by the high sulfur content of the crude. Fires of mammoth proportions swallowed derricks whole, baked the soil, and roasted crops and plant life for miles around.
Tampico grew briskly. From 17,500 inhabitants counted in 1900, the port grew to 23,000 in 1910. By 1921, the population had jumped to 95,000 souls, making the city the fifth largest in the country. The process of urbanization consumed the landscape in earnest. The port became the end point of the thousands of miles of pipeline that originated in the Huasteca oil wells. They discharged crude onto hundreds of storage tanks and dozens of terminals in Tampico, while fleets of tankers cruised along the Pánuco River to ship the juices of the earth abroad. The companies filled in marshes to reclaim land for seven refineries and a maze of piers, docks, and working class neighborhoods.
The environmental cost was enormous. Pollution blanketed the Huasteca like never before in history. Rainbow oil swirls floated on the surface of streams and rivers. The Pánuco River caught fire regularly. The refineries that lined its banks in the last dozen miles before emptying into the Gulf dumped their toxic oil wastes into its channel without controls. Tankers did likewise. In fact, all oil installations disposed of their petroleum refuse in the nearest bodies of water throughout the Huasteca, contaminating the water sources local communities used for drinking, washing, and bathing. The beaches off Tampico became so polluted by oil that tar balls stuck to bathers who dared to take a swim.
Comprehensive in their exploitation of nature, foreign oil men made an impact on local ecosystems and species during their free time as well. The executives and professionals who ran the companies hunted “game,” engaged in “prize” fishing, and arranged for the marshes to be filled in and transformed into golf greens and exclusive country clubs for “whites only.”
A similar pattern emerged in the wetlands of southern Veracruz around Minatitlán in the first two decades of the 20th century. The scope and land mass affected was embryonic by comparison to the Huasteca and Tampico, but the die was cast for the future of mangroves, swamps, marshes, and bogs nonetheless. Pearson’s El Aguila found oil in San Cristóbal in 1900 and began processing it into gasoline, kerosene, asphalt, and lubricants in a refinery he built between two swamps in 1906. The installation drove both industrialization and urbanization in the town of Minatitlán, 1.5 kilometers away. Minatitlán grew haphazardly to accommodate the men who rushed in seeking work, expanding over the swamps and marshes that surrounded the Coatzacoalcos River, which itself became the transportation route for petroleum.
The flammable nature of oil soon haunted southern Veracruz as it did the north. The refinery caught fire in 1908, killing at least one worker and injuring eight more. In 1916, a worse accident took place. The refinery’s asphalt plant burned to the ground, spilling crude on fire into the marshes and the Coatzacoalcos River. The river of fire spread to the wharf and burned it to cinders, while the glow of the fires was visible in Puerto México, on the mouth of the river, eighteen miles away. It took workers three days to put out that fire, but it would not be the last one. The refinery suffered fires in 1919 and 1920. In the meantime, the lightning storms of the rainy season struck storage tanks every year, shrouding the growing population in clouds of toxic smoke. Pollution flourished. The mangrove swamps, the marshes, the river, the lagoons, the sand dunes, and the air darkened with oil slicks, smoke, or hardened asphalt clumps. The unfolding of such a profound ecological transformation across the entire Gulf coast did not go unnoticed, but Mexico was in no position to address the matter.
Conservation and Wasteland
The rise of oil extraction in Mexico coincided with the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), a process that had a much more important ideological and discursive impact on how Mexicans perceived the industry than on the companies’ impact on the country’s environment. The revolution broke out two years after the Dos Bocas explosion, in November 1910, which meant two important developments for petroleum. One, all authority became local as the central government collapsed and the revolutionary factions descended into fratricidal violence. Two, the Gulf coast and its rich oil fields became prized and prime locations for military occupation, a source of revenue for whichever army exercised control over its geography. However begrudgingly, the companies accommodated to the exigencies of armed men who did not hesitate to turn the chapopote into a weapon of war. Threats to blow up wells and pipelines and to turn the forest into a giant blaze guaranteed that the companies shelled out handsome payments to enterprising caudillos, like Manuel Peláez in the Huasteca, to protect extractive activity. Those arrangements functioned well, allowing Mexico to reach prominence in global oil extraction despite the carnage and the revolution. The nationalist and anti-imperialist protest that undergirded the ten years of revolutionary warfare did touch on oil extraction in other ways, however.
The 1917 Constitution, drafted amid the heat of battle, confronted the industry directly. Article 27 declared that the nation had dominion over the country’s territory, surface and subsurface alike, in effect establishing that the nation owned nature. Moreover, the article stipulated that the nation had the right to impose regulations on natural resources “in order to conserve them,” just as it had the right to appropriate them from private owners for the purposes of wealth redistribution.1 That did not mean that the revolutionary leaders were environmentalist or preservationist in outlook, seeking to protect nature from human use. What they sought was the elimination of wasteful utilization of natural resources, in keeping with progressive Western modernizing models of the time. Nevertheless, conservation could have environmental benefits, promising, if not the end of ecological degradation, at least its deceleration and possible containment. Given that Mexicans were still at war, however, Article 27 had no practical application. There was no Mexican state in existence to enforce it. The oil boom in the Huasteca did end, but it was not on account of conservation or revolutionary dreams.
In 1921 the first Mexican oil boom came to a close as the hyper-exploitation of nature drained the Huasteca’s subsoil in a single decade. Beginning in 1918, the oil companies noticed something unusual: salt water poured out of the wells, an unmistakable sign that the oilmen had exhausted subsurface oil mantles. Labor unrest and political wrangling between the post-revolutionary Mexican government installed in 1920 and the companies over Article 27 led to a socioecological crisis by mid-1921. In June and July the companies shut down their Huasteca facilities, firing half the 40,000-strong labor force that extracted a peak of 193 million barrels of oil that year. The expulsion of half the workforce meant overnight depopulation for northern Veracruz and a migrant emergency in Tampico that was alleviated by government-issued railroad tickets to other parts of Mexico. It also meant the abandonment of wells, often without proper capping to prevent leaks, leaving local ecologies vulnerable to spills and fires.
The desolation was tangible. Mexican government officials were moved to a philosophical shift in discourse about the foreign oil industry. They created a narrative of wasteland. In press interviews, the government accused the companies of razing everything in their path, leaving nothing behind but denuded landscapes and broken bodies. Thus the revolutionary leadership offered a deep critique of the boom-and-bust model of capitalist extraction and its exploitation of nature and labor in 1921. It would become the dominant Mexican view of foreign oil for the rest of the 20th century. Economic figures propped up the argument: despite the dismantling of the Huasteca camps, the oil companies reported extracting at least one hundred million barrels of oil per year through 1926, the product of a handful of wells in Cerro Azul and in the Pánuco region. After 1926, the numbers declined irrevocably.
By then, however, an important economic change had taken place. The two big men of the industry, Pearson and Doheny, had sold out to the multinationals, Royal Dutch Shell and Standard Oil, respectively. Having deforested and polluted the Huasteca, the multinational companies moved south to repeat the process. El Aguila, now a subsidiary of Shell, became the most prominent outfit in central and southern Veracruz.
Extraction and Refining in the 1930s
The end of the extraction cycle in the Huasteca did not mean the end of the ecological revolution that the oil industry represented for Mexico’s landscape and people. Despite the Great Depression that gripped the world’s economy beginning in 1929, extraction continued, albeit on a much smaller scale, in Papantla, central Veracruz, while refining grew at Minatitlán in the south.
Historically a stronghold of the Totonacas, and famous since the 19th century for the fragrant vanilla pods that hung from orchids pollinated by indigenous hands, Papantla did not escape the attention of foreign men exploring the Mexican jungles in search of oil. The first well drilled in the Papantla rain forest took place in 1907, but real progress in extraction did not occur until El Aguila bought out the English firm the Oil Fields of Mexico in 1925 and opened an oil camp in Poza Rica, which at the time occupied 0.38 km² (0.24 square miles or 154 acres) and housed 895 people. In the next decade Poza Rica became the epitome of the toxic and unjust urban center that justified the narrative of wasteland and paved the way for nationalization in 1938.
Royal Dutch Shell built and destroyed Poza Rica. As it had done in the Huasteca, El Aguila converted the rain forest into a racially segregated colonial outpost, with separate facilities for foreign “white” employees and Mexican workers. The former enjoyed sturdy new homes on high ground, graced with gardens and a swimming pool to tame tropical temperatures. Mexicans, however, had to fend for themselves. They improvised fragile straw-roofed huts with mud floors, precariously built on the floodplain, at the mercy of heavy rains and seasonal hurricanes. In the ephemeral architecture of the oil camp, these quarters lacked running water, toilets, electricity, and other services. Workers experienced nature at its most challenging, through high temperatures, humidity, torrential rains, floods and malaria. Heat stress was routine, given the outdoor work for twelve hours a day, and crippling accidents were common. Needless to say, medical services for Mexicans were nonexistent.
But work was plentiful, so the camp kept growing. On the eve of nationalization, Poza Rica was a working-class town of 8,000 inhabitants, occupying 1.67 km² (0.65 square miles or 413 acres) carved out of the tropical vegetation. It was also thoroughly toxic. The Poza Rica wells were heavy with natural gas, which Shell’s subsidiary burned off in the open sky for lack of a market. Thick black smoke from the flares permeated the humid air, contaminating workers’ lungs and those of their families and neighbors. Local streams were dark and smelly, polluted by a myriad of contaminants: petroleum residues, extraction waste water, crude spills, sewage, and garbage. All living creatures—humans, domestic animals, flora, and wildlife were affected.
Poza Rica owed its growth to a change in the petroleum market. Although the global price of nature’s subsurface fuel collapsed with the Depression, Mexico’s swelling fleet of buses and trucks required energy. El Aguila stepped in to fill the void. In 1930, the company sought permission to build a refinery near the capital to satisfy Mexico City’s demand for hydrocarbons with oil extracted from the Gulf coast. The Mexican government approved the plan and the company opened a refinery at Azcapotzalco, north of Mexico City, in 1932. Simultaneously, El Aguila built a pipeline that traversed nearly 500 kilometers (300 miles) of terrain between the Papantla rain forest and the mile-high capital, over the mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental. Beginning in 1932, Azcapotzalco refinery workers would convert the juices of the earth into gasoline, diesel, kerosene, motor oil, and similar petroleum-age products that eventually darkened the skies of Mexico City, as it morphed into one of the most polluted urban centers on the planet. Yet the shift to national consumption and the linkage between the tropical lowland and the central highland heightened the importance of Poza Rica as an extraction site. The number of wells El Aguila drilled was miniscule compared to the thousands that pockmarked the Huasteca and Pánuco: a mere twenty-four by 1938, a reflection of the collapse of extractive activity during the Depression. While the downturn spared the landscape the territorially widespread ravages of extraction that took place in northern Veracruz, Poza Rica’s wells represented 18.12 percent of national production by 1935, a percentage that increased to 33.45 percent in 1936 and 57 percent in 1938.
The dominant position of Poza Rica on the Mexican oil map on the eve of nationalization did not mean that it was the only site experiencing environmental transformation, however. In southern Veracruz, where El Aguila controlled some 340,000 hectares (816,000 acres) of land since 1919, the oil camps of San Cristobal, Santa Maria, Filisola, Agua Dulce, Francita, Nanchital, La Concepción, El Monal, and Tecuanapa were largely abandoned by 1921. Nevertheless, El Plan–Las Choapas began producing oil in 1931, feeding the refinery at Minatitlán. Additional crude came from the northern fields, shipped on oil tankers that navigated (and polluted) the waters of the Mexican Gulf down to Puerto México (today the port of Coatzacoalcos). There the tankers entered the mouth of the Coatzacoalcos River, about a half-mile wide in the 1920s, and sailed upriver for 29 kilometers (18 miles) to the refinery.
Thus the Coatzacoalcos River turned into the oil corridor that it is today. Pollution was a reality for the river since 1913, when neighbors began complaining that it ran black and iridescent with oil slicks that hurt their cattle and their crops. Over the years, in fact, the refinery, the oil tankers, and every other vessel that plied petroleum on the Coatzacoalcos dumped their chapopote waste in the river. Just like the Pánuco, the Coatzacoalcos became flammable. Its famous alligators sported teeth blackened by the crude they drank daily. During the May through August rainy season, when the river overflowed its banks, its waters spread the pollution far and wide, blanketing the wetlands in toxic petroleum residues—not to mention farms, backyard orchards, playgrounds, homes, and the refinery itself. Hence two of Mexico’s most important rivers, the Pánuco in the north and the Coatzacoalcos in the south, were sacrificed to crude extraction. The consequences for the flora, the wildlife, the fish, and those who caught them and ate them were undoubtedly deleterious but largely unrecorded. What is documented is how much workers resented the exploitation of nature and labor practiced by the petroleum multinationals. The men’s social and ecological experience in the oil industry, in fact, was a key factor in the nationalization of 1938.
Nature, Work, and Nationalization
Mexican oil workers organized early in the 1910s to confront their working conditions. Segregation, discrimination, racist mistreatment, wages, and hours showed up in petitions in the Huasteca and Minatitlán by 1914. Workers also decried environmental conditions born of the geographical location of the crude: exposure to high temperatures, high humidity, incessant rains, lack of potable water, and the health conditions that accompanied deforestation and stagnant water: malaria and sometimes yellow fever. They also held the companies responsible for the extreme hazards they confronted on the job: explosions, fire, acids, toxic vapors, slippery surfaces, lack of ventilation in enclosed spaces, ubiquitous oil spills, and high incidences of tuberculosis in the refineries. In other words, the men whose labor directly transformed the ecosystems of Veracruz into polluted extraction and industrial landscapes paid for that transformation with their own bodies. Their health and their safety were compromised the minute they entered the geographical spaces that became oil camps and refineries. Demands for hospitals, free medical care, compensation for accidents, protective equipment, and paid funerals appeared in union petitions in the Huasteca, Poza Rica, and Minatitlán through the 1920s and the 1930s. But the oil companies did not budge, shunning responsibility for protecting Mexican workers in the harsh rain forest ecology and blaming the men for accidents and deaths on the job.
Workers had the law on their side in their struggle. The basis for their demands was Article 123 of the revolutionary 1917 Constitution, which guaranteed labor rights and represented the most progressive social legislative principles in the American continent at the time. But the difficulty lay in turning principles into reality. That depended on political power and the enforcement of the law, a process fraught with difficulties as the post-revolutionary Mexican state was still in formation.
In 1934, the oil workers seized the opportunity to press their case that the election of President Lázaro Cárdenas afforded them. General Cárdenas had been stationed in the Huasteca in the mid-1920s, knew the oil companies well, and sympathized with the workers. Therefore, when the oil workers’ union and the multinational petroleum conglomerates dead-locked in the negotiations for the first industry-wide collective bargaining agreement in 1936, the president offered the mediation of the Labor Department to resolve the crisis. In a massive show of force, the 18,000-member oil workers’ union, the Sindicato de Trabajadores Petroleros de la República Mexicana (STPRM), staged the first nationwide strike in history. For thirteen days, all oil extraction and refining in Mexico stopped. At Poza Rica, the workers upped the ante and asked the president directly to expropriate their worksite, sell it to the union, and let the men run it cooperatively, promising conservation. When Cárdenas demurred, the men went out on strike a second time. Because Mexico City was wholly dependent on Poza Rica crude for its gasoline needs, the walkout struck at the heart of the nation. As gasoline stations closed and the lines at others grew longer and longer, it became starkly clear to the whole country that the future of the entire industry was at stake. Unable to broker an agreement between the union and the companies for almost another year and with the transnationals in open rebellion against Mexican law and its courts, Cárdenas opted for nationalization.
On March 18, 1938, the president expropriated the companies that were party to the contract. Royal Dutch Shell and Standard Oil were included in the most important nationalization decree in the history of petroleum extraction at the time (Gulf was excluded because it had crushed its union and was not party to the negotiations). Questions about the reaction of the companies, the management of the industry, and the conservation of Mexico’s underground rivers of oil remained, but for a moment the entire nation rejoiced in the recovery of its natural patrimony. If nothing else, the decision earned President Lázaro Cárdenas a special place in contemporary Mexican history, the pinnacle of heroism in the revolutionary generation.
Post-Nationalization: Crisis, Conservation, and Environmental Impact
With nationalization Mexico took a leap in the history of energy. The option of meeting the nation’s energy needs that first started with Poza Rica in 1932 became the rule. The Mexican government turned its back on centuries of exporting nature abroad and focused instead on using nature for national development. The government knew, however, that taking possession of subterranean nature and extracting oil successfully were entirely different matters. Locating nature’s underground petroleum required knowledge, technology, professional expertise, and capital. Extracting crude once it was located demanded more of the same. Getting the petroleum to market had further requirements: the infrastructure, from refineries to pipelines, to pumping stations, to ships and ports and gasoline stations, to move the highly toxic, highly flammable liquid from the well to the user. Exporting was another challenge, needing clients overseas and ocean-going oil-tankers to reach them. The Mexican government had none of these. Furthermore, the expropriated companies declared a boycott against Mexico, depriving it of markets, capital, and all oil-related spare parts, technology, and know-how. The British went as far as to break diplomatic relations with Mexico altogether. Once the euphoria of the 1938 nationalization subsided, the reality of running an extractive industry set in. The next two decades, the 1940s and 1950s, were difficult for the country’s new state oil company, Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex).
The Mexican government confronted the problems it faced in jump starting oil extraction in two ways. First, it sought to domesticate a militant labor force. The worker control over nature and the cooperativism the unions hoped for was out of the question; therefore, the state marginalized union representatives on the board of Pemex within months of its formation in 1939. Protests from the workers led to tense relations between labor and Pemex in 1940, with outright political confrontation in 1946 and a final battle of wills leading to union cooptation by 1961. Thereafter the Sindicato de Trabajadores Petroleros de la República Mexicana (STPRM) became a partner in oil extraction rather than a representative of workers’ interests. In return, union members won good salaries, medical care, and enough benefits to be perceived as an “aristocracy of labor” by the rest of Mexican society. Pemex then was free to resolve the technology, capital, and market questions without interference from the union.
The Mexican government obviated the problem of markets by focusing exclusively on internal consumption. Exploration was largely postponed until Mexico could train its own engineers and geologists, positions that the oil companies had banned to Mexicans during the four decades they extracted petroleum from the country. Meeting Mexico’s energy needs from its own natural sources, moreover, coincided with the government’s goals of achieving economic growth through import substitution industrialization, a model the large Latin American countries adopted in the wake of the Depression and World War II. Pemex’s initial investment thus went to expand infrastructure, mostly based on oil production at Poza Rica, which by 1940 accounted for 65 percent of national extraction.
In the 1940s and 1950s, then, Pemex’s construction department worked incessantly. Between 1943 and 1945, the company built a refinery and a hospital at Poza Rica, increasing the size of its workforce to 6,000 men. In 1946 Pemex dismantled, rebuilt, and modernized the refinery at Azcapotzalco, including a brand new pipeline from Poza Rica. In 1950, two more refineries were inaugurated: one in Salamanca, state of Guanajuato, and another one in Reynosa, Tamaulipas. The same year, two additional pipelines left Poza Rica; one went to Salamanca and the other one, a natural gas pipeline, headed to Mexico City. In 1951, Pemex bought out Mexican Gulf, which had not been expropriated in 1938, and added its wells and terminal in Pánuco to its infrastructure, while in 1955 the company began building a plant in La Venta, Tabasco, to absorb and process the natural gas emanating from nearby extraction sites. In 1956, the Minatitlán refinery, too, was rebuilt and modernized, based on positive results in explorations in southern Veracruz and Tabasco in 1951 and 1952. Finally, between 1956 and 1958, Pemex built Ciudad Pemex, Tabasco, the 112-hectare (2,688-acre) town that would house the workers who simultaneously built a second gas plant also called Ciudad Pemex. The latter sought to turn natural gas into propane and butane gas rather than flaring it. Workers laid out a pipeline from the gas plant to Minatitlán for processing.
Exploration, in fact, was promising. Between 1946 and 1949, Pemex discovered natural gas fields in northern Tamaulipas, in Reynosa and Valadeces, near the U.S.–Mexico border. Between 1947 and 1956, Pemex drilled 1,769 wells, of which 1,115 yielded hydrocarbons. In 1951, the company found oil and gas in José Colomo, Tabasco, and explored Mecoacán, Comalcalco, La Venta, and twelve more camps in the same state. In 1952, Pemex announced that it had located the extension of the Golden Lane, from Poza Rica south, tending toward the coast to La Venta, the ancient site of Olmec habitation. The infrastructure spree is neatly summarized in the increase in pipeline mileage: from 998 miles in 1947 to 4,154 miles ten years later.
Construction had environmental impacts. The major ones were habitat destruction and fragmentation. The growth of Poza Rica and Minatitlán from an increase in the labor force meant that local ecosystems made way for urbanization. In 1950, for example, Poza Rica had 45,000 inhabitants. In 1960 it had 71,700. The city had increased its physical size in tandem from 11.58 km² (4.47 square miles) to 31.66 km² (12.22 square miles). The augmentation in urban space meant the diminishing of forested ecosystems. In Minatitlán, the refinery proper expanded in a narrow but long rectangular pattern, away from the Coatzacoalcos River, fenced in, as it was, by extensive swamps on two sides. Pemex did not have the capital to drain or pave over the wetlands in those decades, thus left them alone. In keeping with the downturn in extraction after nationalization, the city grew slowly between 1940 and 1950, from 18,539 to 22,455 inhabitants. In 1960, the city counted 35,350 people. Minatitlán’s growth diminished the wetlands, which nevertheless flooded the city during the rainy season.
The network of pipelines that Pemex laid out had its own ecological consequences. Pipelines from Poza Rica to Mexico City and Salamanca, to and from Minatitlán, and to and from Reynosa fragmented the ecosystems they crossed. Those encompassed the tropical forests, the wetlands of the south, and the semi-arid and arid ecosystems of Tamaulipas and the Northeast. The pipelines also fragmented farmland as they made their way from the coast to central Mexico and from the coast to the Northeast. The ecological effects on wildlife are unknown, but certainly animals’ habitat shrunk and they became exposed to potential oil leaks and accidents. Farmers complained about pipelines cutting through their fields as well, but it is a matter of debate whether petroleum had a deleterious effect on farming in the long run.
Oil exploitation did take precedence over any economic activity. Mexican law established the principle in 1925, but by then the foreign oil companies had stopped making significant investments in infrastructure or exploration to give the legislation its full meaning. The Expropriation Law of 1941 reinforced the idea, reaffirming that petroleum enjoyed such priority. That meant that Pemex was free to intrude in every part of the national territory, no matter what ecosystem or activity occupied the geographical surface. The law did stipulate that the nationalized industry would pay compensation for the utilization Pemex might make of the land, in sharp contrast to foreign oil companies’ practice. The new policy would become the source of great social conflict but not until the 1960s.
Meanwhile, in the two decades after expropriation both Pemex and the union saw themselves as practicing conservation as the constitution mandated. Both defined conservation as not wasting natural resources, exemplified by the attempts to cut down on the flaring of natural gas by providing the growing urban middle classes with a home fuel to substitute wood. At the same time, conservation in the use of hydrocarbons was also taking place by default, given that exploration did not yet lead to new discoveries of large deposits of fossil fuels. Despite their differences, Pemex and the STPRM worked from a genuine sense of mission (mística) in service to the nation under adverse conditions. That consciousness included a desire to protect Mexico’s oil riches and the health of the men who made extraction possible. Neither saw a contradiction between the two, as long as labor limited its activities to production and left the politics to the state. The lean years of oil extraction thus spared Mexico’s ecology writ large. But that changed in the decades that followed.
Recovery and the Second Mexican Oil Boom, 1960–1981
In the 1960s and 1970s Pemex made major oil discoveries that changed Mexico in more ways than one. The country’s economy grew rapidly from around 1965 to 1979. The “Mexican miracle,” as some economists dubbed it, was due in part to the government’s policy of keeping oil prices low beginning in 1959. As Mexico’s economy diversified and expanded, so did its energy needs, however, which meant that the country had to import crude through the 1960s to keep up with the demand. Pemex’s growing cadre of engineers, geologists, and other technical personnel worked incessantly, chasing nature to find the oil Mexico thirsted for. They found it in southern Mexico: in Tabasco in the 1960s and in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Campeche in the 1970s. If there is one word to define both locations, it would be water. Tabasco and Campeche are the rainiest states in the nation. Tabasco is in effect an immense wetland, a flat floodplain traversed by many rivers, including the Grijalva and the Usumacinta, which join as one before exiting the state into the Gulf of Mexico. Rain forests line the higher ground bordering on the state of Chiapas to the south, while the lowlands constitute the country’s largest wetland ecosystem, almost an extension of the waterscape of the Mexican Gulf. Until the first half of the 20th century, both Tabasco and Campeche were populated by the gamut of rain forest fauna: monkeys of various species, jaguars, multiple bird species, coatis, opossums, snakes, anteaters, tapirs, lizards, agoutis, alligators, and abundant fish species, among others. As was the case for northern Veracruz, Tabasco residents reported chapopoteras throughout the state, among the mangroves, in the lakes and lagoons, under the rain forest canopy, even in the middle of streams.
In the 1950s Pemex identified subsoil petroleum deposits across the state, from La Venta on the west, to Mecoacán and Tupilco in the center, to Macuspana on the east. In the 1960s, when the petroleum and natural gas started flowing to the surface in earnest, the entire state became one huge oil installation. Pemex built numerous pumping stations; hundreds of storage tanks; the two gas plants at Ciudad Pemex and at La Venta; plus miles of pipelines from the various camps to the gas plants, to Minatitlán, and one 773-kilometer (480-mile) gas line to Azcapotzalco; a new port, Dos Bocas; and, by 1969, forty-four camps and over 500 wells.
The ecological impact of oil extraction on Tabasco was massive. The physiognomy of the state changed, as Pemex razed forests and paved over wetlands or simply drilled in the water. The employment that oil extraction created accelerated population growth in the state. In 1950, Tabasco counted 400,000 inhabitants, a quantity that grew to 500,000 in 1960 and to 800,000 in 1970—all interspersed among petroleum facilities, subjected to the ill health effects of hydrocarbons in the water, soil, and air, exposed to the yearly health and safety risks hurricanes and flooding represent. Plantation owners, ranchers, and small farmers were forced to grant the company the right of way for pipelines and infrastructure. The contamination of water, land, and air overwhelmed local ecosystems, as the company managed its toxic petroleum wastes by dumping them in the nearest swamp, marsh, or stream, by incinerating them into the sky, or collecting them in pits. Pemex also flared immeasurable quantities of natural gas that could not be captured and utilized, drying out plant life within the vicinity of its fiery columns. Given the corrosive power of water, moreover, Pemex installations and pipelines deteriorated quickly, increasing the likelihood of leakage and spills. These posed a danger not only to agriculture and fishing, but to the state’s rather shallow water table, threatening all water sources for the state’s residents.
Neighboring Campeche experienced the boom differently because the extraction took place offshore, in the Gulf of Mexico. Pemex drilled its first exploratory well in the Campeche Sound, in the Gulf of Mexico, Chac-1, between 1974 and 1975, at 11,600 feet below the seabed, and forty-six miles north of Ciudad del Carmen, Campeche. Soon thereafter, the company drilled several more wells, Bacab, Abkantún, Akal, Nahoch, and Cantarell-1. By June 1979, Cantarell had become its own “field” in the Gulf, with twenty rigs drilling wells at depths of 10,500 feet. Mexico estimated Cantarell had up to 20 million barrels of oil. The field became the jewel in the crown of Pemex’s offshore production, an unqualified success as far as exploration and exploitation was concerned. In 1981, Cantarell would be followed by exploration in what became called “the KMZ complex,” after the wells called Ku Maloob Zaap, sixty-five miles northeast of Ciudad del Carmen. Although the wells were out in the waterscape of the Gulf, extraction cast a long shadow into Campeche, particularly the island municipality of Carmen, a thin, elongated island at the mouth of Laguna de Términos, a body of water approximately thirty miles in length and fifteen miles in width. Until Pemex arrived, the lagoon and the coastal lowland of Campeche were major shrimp habitat, sustaining a thriving fishing economy. Offshore oil extraction changed that, as the island became the headquarters for Pemex, providing services for the company and housing for employees, as well as rest and relaxation for the thousands of workers who toiled in the marine platforms in the Gulf. The Peninsula of Atasta, the sliver of land that protects the Laguna de Términos on the eastern side and almost touches the island of Carmen, also changed. It became the locus of a gas plant that received the natural gas from Cantarell and other offshore drilling sites, then led it out through pipelines to other processing plants in Tabasco, Veracruz, and Chiapas. The ecological effects of such a dramatic shift in economic activity in Campeche Sound were not far behind.
The most well known environmental disaster to hit the region was the explosion of the well Ixtoc 1. On June 3, 1979, as the crew drilled, the crude exploded with massive force, sending an oil geyser some 150 feet into the air before it caught fire. Racing against the clock, Pemex workers risked life and limb to cap the well underwater, only to witness how nature destroyed their work by blowing up a second time on June 24. After that, the well expelled between 120 million and 210 million gallons of oil into the waters of the Gulf, until Pemex workers succeeded in closing it ten months later, on March 25, 1980. The spill extended throughout the Gulf, spoiling the coastline from Campeche to Texas. Pemex’s rapid response accounted for the safety of the sixty-three workers on the platform, but other creatures did not fare well. Sea turtles, dolphins, all manner of birds, fish, crabs, and shrimp died in untold numbers. Fishing along the Mexican coast came to a halt for the next two to five years, depending on the location. For Campeche residents, Ixtoc 1 was but a preview of how dangerous and polluting hydrocarbons were, no matter who owned the extraction company. The rest of the nation was about to find out as well.
The Era of Massive Accidents and Environmental Destruction
Defined as a company in the service of national development, Pemex did its best to provide for the energy needs of the whole country. Given that nature determined that the location of petroleum would be the territories hugging the Gulf of Mexico, the company had to develop a transport network to take hydrocarbons from the eastern ecosystems to the rest of the nation. Tanker trucks and a network of pipelines accomplished that task. By 2014, in fact, Pemex reported having 22,000 miles of pipeline across the nation, most crossing the country’s geography from the east to the north and west, climbing over the Sierra Madre Oriental or tunneling through Mexico’s tropical forests, grasslands, coniferous forests, and scrublands. Furthermore, the pipelines bearing hydrocarbons had to reach refineries to distill the petroleum into usable products. By 1982, Pemex had seven refineries across the country: Ciudad Madero (Tamaulipas), Minatitlán (Veracruz), Azcapotzalco (Mexico City), Salamanca (Guanajuato), Salina Cruz (Oaxaca), Cadereyta (Nuevo León), and Tula (Hidalgo). In addition, dozens of smaller installations for oil and natural gas storage, transport, and processing dotted the landscape. The possibilities for ecological disasters thus increased as the company grew and covered more of the country’s territory.
One of the worst petroleum disasters in Mexican history took place outside Mexico City in 1984, at the San Juan Ixhuatepec gas plant. The installation, opened in 1961, occupied thirty acres of land and housed fifty-four tanks of liquid petroleum gas, which supplied 40 percent of the capital’s natural gas consumption. On November 19, 1984, at 5:40 a.m., a leaky pipeline blew up, sending fire in all directions, including toward the first gas tank. A gigantic fireball burst into the sky and the other tanks began to catch fire. As the tanks blew up one by one, it rained fire on the working-class neighborhood contiguous to the plant. Soon the flames extended over a radius of two kilometers (1.24 miles), incinerating every creature in their path. Domestic animals, including dogs, cats, chickens, horses, donkeys, goats, and sheep were burned to death. Some 500–600 people perished in the blaze, while 5,000 to 7,000 more suffered severe burns. By 2 p.m., up to 250,000 people had been evacuated, many seeking shelter in the Basilica of Guadalupe down the road, while the military cordoned off 8 square kilometers (3 square miles) for firefighters to battle the flames. Despite numerous small injuries and mild intoxications from the gases and the smoke, the men succeeded in putting out the inferno at 8 p.m. The plant had burned to the ground, with fourteen hectares (34.5 acres) of San Juan Ixhuatepec totally charred and fifteen (37 acres) more severely damaged. For two weeks after the fire, the smell of gas filled the air, leaking from underground pipelines.
The ecology of San Juan Ixhuatepec was devastated. Even before the explosion, the Remedios River that ran through it was severely contaminated by waste from Pemex and forty other industrial plants that dumped their refuse in it. The air was perpetually gray from the hydrocarbon-laced smog. The subsoil was a web of pipelines and reports of gas leaks were common. In the aftermath of the conflagration, the community demanded that Pemex and seven other private gas companies in the neighborhood leave. Instead, Pemex built two parks, one over the seven blocks of neighborhood that burned down, and another one over a section of the land where the plant was located, dubbed “the park of death” by the local population. The company rebuilt the plant farther away from the houses but did not leave the neighborhood, which once more lived under the threat of a petroleum-made disaster and a dangerous ecology.
Another extraordinary oil-instigated disaster occurred nearly a decade later, in 1992, in Guadalajara, Jalisco. The neighborhoods around a sector called Reforma and around the east and southeast section of the city reported a strong gasoline odor on April 19, followed by reports of gasoline rising out of toilets and gasoline vapors exuding out of manholes over the next two days, but no government official sounded an alarm. At 10:09 a.m. on April 22, the first of ten explosions underneath city streets began. Seven miles of road blew upward, as a sewer main that was eighteen feet in diameter and saturated with gasoline caught fire. The devastation was immediate, with some twenty city blocks demolished in the blast. Highly disputed official figures put the death toll at over 206 dead, 1,460 injured, and 69 missing. In addition, 1,148 homes, 450 businesses, 100 schools, and 600 cars were destroyed or damaged. Between 15,000 and 20,000 people were left homeless. The cause turned out to be a leak in a pipeline fed from the Salamanca refinery to a Pemex storage plant, La Nogalera, in Guadalajara. The duct spilled some 270,000 liters (71,300 gallons) of gasoline per hour, for at least one week, finding its way to the city’s sewage system where it ignited. It took twenty-four hours to repair the leak. Witnesses reported a fountain of gasoline four meters (thirteen feet) in height at the point of rupture. In the aftermath, a nine-mile ditch eighty feet wide and twenty-five feet deep gouged Avenida Gante. Although Pemex denied responsibility for the calamity at first, the company was forced to pay compensation to the victims. While San Juan Ixhuatepec and Guadalajara are the worst examples of mass casualties, they are not the only sites that have experienced crude-related explosions, fires, and loss of life. There are hundreds of similar but smaller occurrences that have been documented, just as there are dozens of locations facing a high level of danger in Mexico today. The petrochemical industry, beyond the scope of this article but born from national control over Mexico’s natural hydrocarbon wealth, is of major concern, particularly the cluster formed around the Coatzacoalcos River in the south and Altamira, north of Tampico. Both sites are deeply polluted, extremely flammable, and perilously located near large urban centers.
Decline, Protest, and Reforms, 1982–2015
There were industry observers and journalists who pointed to the number and scale of Pemex disasters as proof of the company’s decline. The Mexican “miracle” ended in 1982, when a glut in global oil markets sunk the price of crude and the government nearly defaulted on the enormous debt it had incurred in advance of petroleum sales. The peso was devalued and budget cuts became the order of the day. That included belt-tightening at Pemex, which already saw the earnings from oil extraction going to the national treasury rather than its own budget. An intense debate over the reasons for Pemex’s decline ensued (and continues today), but there was no question that its physical plant required maintenance and upgrading that was not occurring, which put at risk workers, communities, and the environment alike.
Yet the reasons for colossal disasters and untrammeled environmental destruction transcended budget. Mexico’s ecology was secondary to the growth imperative. To the degree that Mexico created its own industrial base, including an important petrochemical sector, a national bourgeoisie, and a strong middle class, the country achieved the goals of import substitution industrialization set out in the 1930s. Mexico’s economy diversified, and the country averted some of the dangers of becoming a petro-state, a “curse” among other oil-producing countries. To pay for the infrastructure necessary for state-led capitalist development as well as social programs and benefits, the state relied heavily on Pemex. Between 1986 and 2006, for instance, conservative estimates placed Pemex’s contribution to the state’s budget at 30 percent. The need for that income meant that the extraction hydrocarbons would remain a priority above all other economic activities, and certainly above environmental protection—a reality that the government considered unavoidable and perhaps undesirable.
Nevertheless, the environmental cost of oil extraction could not be ignored permanently. To address it, in 1988, the state passed the Law of Ecological Equilibrium and Environmental Protection, which included mandatory monitoring of oil extraction and petrochemicals. As proof of its commitment to the law and to cleaning up the air in Mexico City, Pemex shut down the refinery at Azcapotzalco in 1991; the public doubted that justification given that five other refineries (Poza Rica, Salamanca, Madero, Tula, and Salina Cruz) were expanded between 1984 and 1989.
However ineffective in practice, environmental protection laws did provide communities with a legal basis to question Pemex’s neglect of nature. Protest against pollution and exposure to fire and other hazards had a long history, since the 1910s when the foreign companies first established themselves in the country. But it was not until there was a legal framework to protect nature that community groups organized using an explicitly ecological discourse to confront Pemex. In Tabasco, for example, the Santo Tomás Ecological Association formed in 1990 to protest the effects of Mexico’s second oil boom on health and the environment. Similar organizing efforts took place in Campeche, where small farmers and members of the fishing industry decried the pollution of fields and water and Pemex’s disregard for the Laguna de Términos in spite of it being declared a protected area in 1994. In southern Veracruz small farmers formed the Association of Ecological Producers Tatexco (APETAC) in 1998 to oppose Pemex’s practice of dumping toxic waste in the waterways around Minatitlán. Nationwide, Greenpeace Mexico became active in monitoring Pemex’s oil and petrochemical activity and publishing information about spills, explosions, and all matter of environmental destruction. Together, the organizations recast the narrative of wasteland that Mexicans forged about foreign companies for the new circumstances. The national oil company became infamous as the worst polluter in Mexico, and the sites with the most concentrated oil and petrochemical activity, Coatzacoalcos and Minatitlán, the worst of all.
The response of the government to popular protest was twofold. First, Pemex created a culture of compensation. By law, since 1941, the company was obligated to pay private parties for any land use it made in the course of its activities and for any damages it caused. As the company, the pollution, and the explosions grew, the claims climbed into the thousands. In 2012, for example, Pemex took care of 26,754 claims in the Isthmus alone, which it paid dutifully, if not to the satisfaction of the claimants. In fact, disappointment with the insufficiency of the payments became another source of conflict between local communities and Pemex. Compensation substituted for prevention of environmental degradation and did not make up for the destruction of land, water, air, and health.
The second state approach to protest was outright repression. The most obvious cases involved the relationship between the company and the oil workers’ union, particularly dissidents within it who fought for democratization and transparency. Yet even the incarceration of the union’s strongman, Joaquín Hernández Galicia, “La Quina,” in January 1989, one of the first official acts of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, was perceived by the public as clearing the path for the privatization of Pemex, not as an act of justice for all the criminal misdeeds of the labor leader. By the same token, Pemex employees who dare to speak up too loudly about policy decisions are routinely fired, while attacks on local environmental activists are not uncommon, if less publicized. Lastly, the Mexican government decided to militarize the offshore wells, establishing exclusion zones in Campeche Sound to keep all civilian boats, including fishing vessels, away from the wells. In 1998, the government established the first exclusion zone at Cayo Arcas, an offshore shipping terminal. In September 2003, the restricted area grew to include 6,100 square miles of waters around Cantarell, a complex that included some 200 wells and over 200 platforms. In addition, that same year the military enclosed another 450 square miles around the Dos Bocas terminal in Tabasco. Although the government claimed to be protecting the installations from potential terrorists, critics pointed out that patrolling the Gulf with military hardware was a deterrent to the independent investigation of spills, explosions, and fires, which occur with regularity in offshore extraction in Mexico.
To solve Pemex’s financial problems, the government decided to enact a series of reforms leading to private investment. The first changes happened under President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and focused on the petrochemical industry. The extractive sector, however, required constitutional reforms to Article 27. Those were highly unpopular among Mexicans, so it took more than a decade to achieve. In August 2014, the Mexican Congress approved reforms presented by President Enrique Peña Nieto that allow private parties, domestic and foreign, to partner or compete with Pemex. Although the nation continues to own Mexico’s hydrocarbons, the government may now contract with private enterprise to exploit them. According to observers, one goal of the reforms is to obtain new technologies. Specifically, the government hopes that the private sector will bring the know-how to do ultra-deep offshore drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Both methods are ecologically dangerous. The 2010 British Petroleum spill in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrated the extreme hazard posed by drilling deeply into the seabed, as eleven workers died in the blast and millions of barrels of oil soiled the Gulf and U.S. coastal landscapes. “Fracking” in the United States has also proved to be environmentally unfriendly, requiring large quantities of water, creating toxic waste, contaminating underground water tables, and provoking earthquakes. But with estimated reserves of 50 billion barrels of oil in ultra-deep water in the Gulf and millions more to be fracked in northern Tamaulipas and Coahuila, the stakes are high. The reforms might indeed achieve the goal of reviving Mexico’s oil sector, but if history is a guide, the ecological costs could be higher still.
Discussion of the Literature and Primary Sources
The historiography of Mexican oil is extensive in economics, political science, anthropology, and sociology. In history, there are works that cover multiple topics, such as diplomacy, politics, and labor. The environmental history of oil extraction in the 20th century, however, has yet to be written. The best primary sources to undertake the project are in the Archivo General de la Nacón in Mexico City, in its many branches and departments. The Archivo General del Estado de Veracruz in Xalapa has rescued municipal archives from across the state, covering many oil extraction sites, in addition to the official records of the state’s agencies. The Archivo Histórico de Petroleos Mexicanos at Azcapotzalco has the documents left behind by the foreign oil companies and other materials, while the Pemex website has the company’s Memorias de Labores (annual reports) since 1965. Local newspapers in each state cover Pemex activities, as well as accidents leading to pollution and environmental destruction, including Tribuna in Campeche, for instance. The national newspaper La Jornada regularly reports on Pemex’s environmental record, as does the weekly magazine Proceso. A number of community organizations publish their protests and findings on their websites, including Tabasco’s Asociación Ecológica Santo Tomás and Greenpeace Mexico. The scientific literature tracking the effects of petroleum pollution is expanding, with recent research covering fisheries specifically.
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