• Noor Sehgal

2nd July: The day the ocean caught on fire

In the early hours of 2nd July a fire broke out on the ocean surface in the Gulf of Mexico. What looked like a ring of fire, also known as the gateway to hell on social media, is suspected to be a gas leak in an underwater pipeline owned by Pemex.

What is Pemex and why is this one gas leak of so much importance?

Petróleos Mexicanos, popularly known as Pemex is a state-owned Mexican company, a producer, refiner, and distributor of crude oil, natural gas and petroleum products. It is one of the largest petroleum companies in the world and a major revenue source of the federal government contributing to almost 1/3rd of its budget.

The recent accident is not an isolated incident and by all means the company is a sizable operation, even in terms of the accidents and deaths they are held responsible for.

Gas leaks and explosions are almost like an yearly occurrence, an annual event at Pemex facilities, but very few of these lethal incidents have invited considerable media attention

Be it the 1979 Ixtoc 1 explosion where for nearly 10 months, the well poured oil into the gulf at an estimated rate of 30,000 barrels per day, or the 1984 San Juanico disaster which resulted in a series of explosions consuming about a third of Mexico City's petroleum supply, killing more that 500 and injuring thousands or the 1992 gasoline explosions that claimed 252 lives or the recent 2019 pipeline blast that killed 79 and injured dozens, the instances are countless. This is clearly not the first occurrence.

This brings us to 2021, where a suspected pipeline burst caused the ocean to catch fire and took about 5 hours to put out the oceanic fireball

But why are these disasters occurring so frequently?

Preventive Maintenance presents itself as one of the main causes of repeated accidents at Pemex. Lack of proper investment, declining production, increasing debt on the company, spending of limited funds on non-core units and inefficient drilling projects instead of maintenance, lack of infrastructural development, cases of deliberate Sabotage and fuel thefts have all contributed to the issue.

What has been the response?

The company default response has been dismissal of claims and a reassurance that an in depth investigation would be conducted.

But what also remains common within all these accidents is the lack of transparency as to what really went down. The headlines gradually disappear within a fortnight and what remains are blurry details and questions in the minds of the public. With such serious accidents taking place each year and no serious action being taken brings to light the symbiotic relationship between the state, a body which is supposed to regulate and control the organisation and Pemex, the government's Cash cow

The Future

While maintenance and security at Pemex facilities is not something new, the recent years have invited more criticism regarding dangers of fossil fuels in general. Five of Mexico’s six Pemex oil refineries are among the 25 top polluters in the world for Sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions

A NASA report shows that Mexico’s oil and gas activity was overall the second most polluting in the world in 2018, producing 1,580 kilotons of emissions.

The current President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, aims to revive Pemex, invite investment and boost production at a time where companies around the globe are switching to cleaner fuels. Organisations and authorities have been warning the federal government regarding the ill effects of their fossil fuel model which is detrimental to both people and the environment. Calls for stricter regulation and outright abolition of oil drilling have emerged in response to the accident.

While the company has yet again assured that an investigation in the incident would take place it's long track record of explosions and fires and lack of accountability and government pressure suggests otherwise.


Sources: Reuters, Washington Post, New York Times, LA Times

~ Noor Sehgal