What Are Mexico’s Plans for Fracking?By Cas Biekmann | Wed, 05/20/2020 - 18:21
Yesterday, it was reported that the CNH had approved seven fracking-based projects. Although the commission was quick to say that the practice is illegal and these only concerned exploration efforts, fracking could make its entry into Mexico soon. If it does become a regular activity, what would be the costs and the benefits for society?
Fracking, or Hydraulic Fracturing, is a technique designed to extract oil and gas from shale rock, using a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals to fracture apart the rocks. By using this method, companies are allowed access to otherwise hardly reachable oil and gas reserves, which have been estimated to contribute to 100-year gas security for both the US and Canada, reported the BBC. Drilling projects could create thousands of jobs, energy needs can be secured for many years and economic benefits are plentiful. So why is the practice so controversial?
El Universal reported that President López Obrador’s attitude on fracking was clear in December 2018: Mexico would not allow the extraction of fossil fuels through methods that pollute nature and threaten ground water. However, stagnating GDP growth, a global pandemic, low oil prices and an impending recession would be enough for anyone to reevaluate their promises. Despite its almost magical benefits, fracking has a lot of detractors as well.
In the US, environmental activists worry that the practice generates tremors. The Seismological Society of America supports this notion, as it said that small earthquakes in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas can be connected to hydraulic fracturing wells within the regions. The society warns that the phenomenon is “underestimated,” although it raises the fair point that fracking-based earthquakes are much rarer than those caused by wastewater disposal in oil and gas fields, which is caused by the same players but much less debated. The deeper the well and the closer to mature faults, the higher the risk, scientists agreed. Earthquakes, however, are not always the largest environmental concern. What worries activists in the UK, for instance, is the closeness of fracking’s high-pressure mix to ground water. The mix contains toxic chemicals and sand, in addition to water. Were this to seep into the groundwater, the negative effects could be immense. The large amounts of water needed to get the drilling going are cause for concern as well.
In the case of The Netherlands, fracking is already planned to be halted in 2022. Gas drilling was blamed for small, localized earthquakes in the north of the country throughout 350 square miles, including the biggest city in the province, Groningen. This meant some notable cracks in national monuments and damage claims from thousands of home owners, reported the New York Times. Even though the existence of shale gas would allow the country to replace polluting coal-based power and provide independence from having to import Russian gas, the costs eventually outweighed the benefits for the Dutch government. In the end, the government decided that its wind potential, to name one avenue, was much more sensible. The argument that turbines were not much to look at was much easier to dispel than a sudden emergence of tremors.
But Mexico is not The Netherlands. For one thing, Mexico is 47 times the size of the tiny European country. Whereas an affected radius of 350 square miles means a sizeable chunk of Dutch territory, this is far less likely to be the case in the Mexican context. Although fracking’s well-published negative connotations make it a potentially unpopular political decision, unconventional resources remain alluring in the Mexican context. It is therefore not a complete surprise El Universal and La Jornada reported that CNH had approved exploration toward fracking. The initiatives come from interested companies that have a desire to tap into these conventional resources. For the seven projects CNH approved, six come from PEMEX and one from Campos DWF. However, La Jornada reported CNH’s response: the commission said that the permissions were granted during the last administration. Furthermore, three of the exploration projects had already been abandoned. The continuing projects are merely trying to establish whether potential exists, as is their current right.
While there is no way of telling whether President López Obrador will change his mind on fracking in the future, his approval of the practice seems unlikely. After stating his official disapproval in 2018, no changes have been made in either his policy or his rhetoric. In fact, the president seemed to double down on his previous statements during his daily mañanera: “Today, I saw a note saying that fracking permits were allowed. It is not true and I am going to investigate that,” he said. Therefore, for the time being, fracking will remain sidelined in Mexico.