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Answers sought in wake of deadly pipeline explosion in central Mexico

On January 18, a gas pipeline in central Mexico exploded, killing at least 95 people as of January 23. Authorities report that the explosion was located in Tlahuelilpan in the Mexican State of Hidalgo, where a gasoline pipeline had been tapped illegally.

Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador, who took office in December, has shut down six major fuel pipelines as part of his effort to combat fuel theft, transporting the gasoline via truck instead. President López Obrador reported that last year, gasoline thieves stole USD$3 billion worth of fuel from Mexico’s state-owned oil company Pemex. The Mexican government’s investigations have uncovered a 2 mile long hose siphoning off fuel from a refinery, and illegal warehouses built on top of pipelines.

Fuel theft has grown in recent years as drug crackdowns caused gangs to look for alternate forms of profit, and as the industry opened for foreign investment under the previous president which allowed gangs to undercut higher gasoline prices. Beside shutting down vulnerable pipelines, President López Obrador has also ordered 4,000 military and police personnel to guard other pipelines and has pledged to eliminate corrupt government officials profiting off stolen oil.

According to Marcos y Asociados energy consultancy partner Luis Miguel Labardini, Mexico has only 2.5 days worth of gasoline storage capacity. The changes in delivery methods have caused widespread fuel shortages in six states for over 2 weeks, prompting long lines at gas stations and much frustration over social media. The gas shortage has had a severe impact on public transportation, the economy, public safety, and tourism. On January 8, the president of Michoacán’s Transportation Regulation Commission indicated that 40% of public transportation vehicles in the state capital had to discontinue operations and that the transportation system could collapse should the shortage continue. The decrease in the fleet along with the increase of people unable to drive inevitably makes public transit overcrowded. The shortage has also exposed vulnerabilities in public safety, such as when police cars run out of fuel. At one local gas station in the state of Aguascalientes, three out of the four gas pumps were being used exclusively for police vehicles, frustrating some motorists who thought police departments should maintain their own source of fuel.

On the day of the explosion, hundreds of Tlahuelilpan residents reportedly went out with empty containers to collect free gasoline that was gushing out of the ruptured pipe. The deaths of so many has sparked a national debate: were the victims of the explosion criminals looking to steal gasoline, or desperate citizens looking to alleviate some of their struggles? With 55% of Tlahuelilpan residents living in poverty, and economic situations exacerbated by the gas shortage, it’s likely that poverty played a significant role in the explosion’s death toll. 

“We have the conviction that the people are good, that they are honest, that if they arrived at these extremes, these practices, it’s because they were completely abandoned” by the state, President López Obrador remarked at a press conference following the disaster.

On Twitter, Hidalgo State Governor Omar Fayad pleaded with citizens to stop the theft of fuel, saying; “This, besides being unlawful, puts your life and that of the families at risk. What happened today in Tlahuelilpan should not be repeated.”

Sources and Further Readings

As Tlahuelilpan buries its dead, a debate rages about the cause of the tragedy – Mexico News Daily

Mexico’s gas crisis, explained – PRI

Widespread Gas Shortage In Mexico As Government Tries To Thwart Fuel Thieves – NPR

Pipeline Erupts in Fiery Explosion in Mexico, Killing Many – New York Times

Gasoline Pipeline Tragedy, Fuel Supply Crisi Expose Vulnerability of Mexico Oil, Gas Infrastructure – Natural Gas Intel

Gas stations in Mexico are running dry after the state-owned oil company cracked down on rampant fuel theft – Business Insider

Anger, panic, uncertainty after over a week without gas in Michoacán – Mexico News Daily

Fuel shortages continue in Michoacán; 70% of gas stations remain closed – Mexico News Daily