Mexico is emerging as the next big battleground in conflicts over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as the method of extracting natural gas is commonly known. While Mexican lawmakers consider regulatory legislation to put into practice the 2013 energy reform that opened up their county’s oil and gas reserves to private investors, anti-fracking forces are mobilizing for a moratorium or an outright ban of the controversial practice from the Mexican Congress.
“There are many warning signs around the world about this predatory practice in the environment and on health,” said Mexican Senator Rabindranath Salazar Solorio, a member of the center-left PRD party and secretary of the Senate’s energy commission. “It’s for this reason that Mexico should reflect and not commit the same errors to the detriment of the population.”
Mexican environmentalists cite many reasons to forget fracking: the depletion of scarce water resources; the potential contamination of aquifers; the usage of toxic chemicals, including substances identified as carcinogens, mutagens and endocrine disruption agents; the generation of toxic waste; and a growing body of evidence linking earthquakes to fracking.
Prohibited in some localities around the world, the fracking technique blasts millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into underground shale deposits in order to break up the rock formations and release gas.
Seeing mammoth dollar signs, fracking boosters like Chihuahua Governor Cesar Duarte maintain that developing shale gas reserves will ring in an unprecedented bonanza of billions of greenbacks and benefit economic and social development.
“The ecological effects as well as the economic and social ones don’t have to be negative. Why would we want an industry to comes that impacts us?” Duarte was recently quoted. “On the contrary, this is an opportunity for Chihuahua that was not on the horizon, to turn us into a state with energy potential.”
Lately, the Chihuahua governor has been a busy man selling his state’s energy profile. He’s discussed the matter with the director of Mexico’s national oil company Pemex, addressed thousands of businessmen at a Washington, DC conference and met with unnamed European investors. And Duarte is far from alone among Mexican political and business leaders poised to plunge into the shale gas market.
According to the US Energy Information Administration, Mexico places number six in the world’s club of nations with recoverable shale gas resources, topped only by China, Argentina, Algeria, the United States, and Canada—in that order. Touted as the spark that will get Mexico’s economic engine roaring, the success of 2013 energy reform will largely depend on accessing shale and other hard-to-reach hydrocarbon reserves, such as deepwater oil.
The industry news site Oilprice.com reports that Mexico’s recoverable shale gas reserve is estimated at 600 trillion cubic feet. Additionally, the country is believed to possess 13 billion barrels of recoverable shale oil, making the Aztec Republic the eighth largest country in the world with such deposits.
Pemex has indentified five main shale gas regions for possible exploitation, extending from parts of Hidalgo, Veracruz and Puebla states in the center and south of the country to the states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila and Chihuahua in the northern border region, roughly the same zone Mexican political analyst Victor Quintana calls “Zeta Land,” in reference to the influence of the Zetas organized crime group.
Mexican and international press reports indicate that 20,000-plus fracking wells could be on the drawing board. Pemex has already drilled at least 19 experimental shale gas wells in the Nuevo Leon-Tamaulipas borderlands, with other exploratory grounds near Nuevo Laredo and another zone to the south.
Reportedly, Halliburton and Schlumberger have commenced drilling wells in nine municipalities of Nuevo Leon. Gustavo Hernández, Pemex’s chief for exploration and production, said wells located in the Burgos Basin and other areas should receive $800 million in investments within the next year.
Likely springing from deep foreign pockets, overall investments between $100-250 billion are projected as necessary to develop the national shale gas industry during the next decade. For Federico Alanis, owner of a small aluminum business in the border city of Reyosa, Tamaulipas, fracking is the future. “We have to renovate or die,” Alanis said. Shale dollars, Alanis added, represent a “blessing from God.”
But others in northern Mexico do not see a divine hand in fracking. Residents of Nuevo Leon and at least one academic study point the finger at fracking, (already underway on a large scale in neighboring Texas) for an increase in earthquakes during the last two years.
Scores of homes in Las Enramadas, Nuevo Leon, have purportedly suffered fractures to walls and floors. Elias González, resident of Garza González, Nuevo Leon, told the Mexican press he had spent nearly $2,000 repairing damages to his floor from a quake. Students preparing for a springtime festival this year at the Repueblo de Oriente school were startled when the earth shook, breaking building windows and sending the children into a panic.
A January 2014 study authored by the engineering faculty of the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon linked the spike in earthquakes to natural geological movements, natural gas extraction, the over-exploitation of aquifers, and barite mining.
Water is a huge concern, especially considering that much of the area of the country mapped out for fracking is in an arid zone that is likely to get only drier according to the predictions of climate scientists.