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MEXICO: Oil Spill Fuels Debate on Environmental Safety

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, May 7 2010 (IPS) - The spreading oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has highlighted the urgent need for stricter environmental rules and standards for deep sea oil rigs.

A moratorium on drilling for oil along the maritime frontier between Mexico and the United States in the Gulf of Mexico expires in January 2011.

Mexico is planning to speed up exploration on its side of the frontier — something the U.S. has been doing since 1996.

“The accident has fuelled the debate on regulations for deep sea oil exploration,” Jorge Zarco, the editor of the magazine Petróleo&Energía, told IPS. “In order to drill, they should have rigorous environmental impact and risk assessments, which would provide the basis for regulating.”

The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, owned by Swiss-based Transocean Ltd and under lease to BP through September 2013, sank on Apr. 22 off the coast of Louisiana in the southern U.S. after an explosion caused a fire that burned for two days.

The accident left 11 dead and 17 injured. The oil slick, which reached the shores of several islands off the coast of Louisiana Thursday, is now larger than 9,000 square kilometres and could become the worst ecological disaster in North America.

BP and U.S. officials have reported that 5,000 barrels of oil a day are gushing from the leaking well.

“Any exploration or drilling in vulnerable areas or ecosystems should pay special attention to safety issues,” Daniel Chacón, head of the Mexican section of the binational Border Environment Cooperation Commission, told IPS.

Safety “should outweigh any other economic or technical considerations,” he said emphatically.

The Commission, which was set up in 1993 during the negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — which has joined Canada, Mexico and the United States since 1994 — brings together Mexican and U.S. agencies and the governments of the states on both sides of the border.

Cross-border oil deposits in the Gulf of Mexico are subject to a bilateral treaty on the delimitation of the continental shelf signed in 2000, which established the moratorium on drilling.

The two governments are involved in talks to extend the agreement, which regulates oil drilling along the 850 kilometre maritime frontier.

In one area of approximately 17,000 square kilometres — 10,500 of which belong to Mexico and 6,500 to the United States — there are an estimated 30 billion barrels of crude on the Mexican side, according to state oil giant Pemex.

“The agreement with the United States should include safety and environmental standards for oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Zarco. “Pemex’s new contracts should include clauses on these questions.”

For his part, Chacón said that “if Mexico is going to get heavily involved, it will have to make a huge effort to minimise the risks.”

While Pemex has drilled a little over one deepwater oil well a year in the Gulf of Mexico over the last few years, 167 wells a year are drilled in U.S. waters in the Gulf, which provide over one million barrels a day.

There are 3,900 oil platforms like the Deepwater Horizon operating in U.S. waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

Pemex, meanwhile, is planning to drill nine wells by 2018 in Mexico’s waters in the Gulf.

As cheap, easy to extract crude is used up, the option is to explore in deepwater areas like the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coastal areas off Brazil and Angola. But that means stretching technology to the limit and mounting operations that are risky to the environment as well as to oil rig workers.

In the United States, use of a remote-control trigger called an acoustic switch, which makes it possible to shut down an underwater valve even if the oil rig itself is damaged, is not mandatory. The Deepwater Horizon did not have one.

In Brazil and Norway, use of the remote-control device, which costs 500,000 dollars, is obligatory.

As of March, Pemex was extracting 2.98 million barrels of oil a day nationwide. Around 33 percent of the national budget comes from oil revenue, which means the country is tied to crude oil in terms of energy as well as finances.

On Mar. 30, U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled a new national oil drilling proposal to allow exploration for oil and natural gas along the Atlantic coastline from Delaware to Florida.

But a month later, the Obama administration suspended the approval process for new wells, until the cause of the oil spill is identified.

In October 2007, Pemex’s Usumacinta drilling platform collided with the Kab 101 oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 22 people. Several lawsuits have been brought against Pemex and the makers of the rigs in U.S. courts.

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