Updated: Dec 2, 2021
Aerial shot of blaze in Gulf of Mexicoᶦ
Pemex boats dousing flames in immediate aftermathᶦᶦ
On the morning of 2 July 2021, during an electrical storm, a 12-inch gas pipe running underwater in the Gulf of Mexico ruptured and caused a gas leak in the ocean.ᶦᶦᶦ Then, following suit with the series of unfortunate climatic disasters preceding it this year, all eyes turned in horror to the unlikeliest of occurrences: Our ocean caught fire.
Here’s what we know:
The pipeline in question is managed by the Mexican oil monopoly Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, who have apparently had incidents similar to this one in the past. In 2013, a gas build-up at the company headquarters in Mexico City killed thirty-seven people. ᶦᵛIn 2015, four Pemex workers were killed with sixteen injured and more than three hundred evacuated due to an explosion on the company’s “Abkatun A-Permanente platform in the Gulf of Mexico”.ᵛ According to Bloomberg, the company “has the largest debt of any major oil production company at around $114bn” and lost roughly “$23bn as demand for oil decreased during the pandemic” in 2020.ᵛᶦ If this history of on-site accidents and troubling financial dealings does not set off a red flag, keep reading.
During the July 2021 ring-of-fire incident, Pemex promptly released a statement that “the incident was dealt with immediately” and without any ensuing injuries.ᵛᶦᶦ Within five hours of the leakage and fire outbreak, the pipeline was back to siphoning gas as per its regular operations.ᵛᶦᶦᶦ The workers at Pemex have reported that nitrogen and sprayed water were used to control the fire and the company statement promised to conduct its own investigations.ᶦˣ Since this is a blog and not a newspaper, I feel compelled to draw attention to the irony of using water to put out a fire in the ocean. You simply cannot make this stuff up.
Pemex claims that the rupture in the pipeline was caused by “ageing, poorly maintained infrastructure”, as if their negligent standards of operations should dismiss explosions and oil spills as mere collateral damage.ˣ Pemex also claims that their “immediate action” to quell the ring of fire was enough to avoid any “environmental damage”. ˣᶦ The logical transgression would
insinuate that five hours of damage control was enough to completely restore this “ageing, poorly maintained” pipeline to a state considered safe enough to keep calm and carry on. Pemex denies any oil spill or environmental damage.ˣᶦᶦ Since they said it, it must be true.
Environmentalists disagree. The entire situation was met with criticism from climate activists and politicians, amongst them Extinction Rebellion, “Greta Thunberg and U.S Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez”.ˣᶦᶦᶦ Unfortunately, the Mexican authorities are unconcerned by the urgency of the outbreak; “Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrados has bet heavily on the fossil fuel industry” via a hefty grant to Pemex, and has outwardly described oil as “the best business in the world”.ˣᶦᵛ That should sufficiently explain Obrados’ unwarranted allegiance to a company drowning in billions of dollars of debt (ahem, personal stakes).
Greenpeace Mexico has since accused Pemex of committing “ecocide” and criticised their lack of transparency as it is virtually impossible to “calculate the carbon footprint of the gas leak because there is no public information about the amount of gas usually transported by the pipeline”.ˣᵛ Greenpeace added that methane in the ocean can “rapidly penetrate the bodies of fish, doing direct damage” and can seep into their systems to ultimately kill them within two days. ˣᵛᶦ A senior research analyst at Oil Change International said “the pipeline could have been leaking for a while before the gas caught fire” and that the severity of the damage done cannot be discerned “until and unless we get more information from Pemex”.ˣᵛᶦᶦ
According to the NRDC, “pipeline leaks and ruptures are common, due to insufficient regulation” and will always risk causing harm to the environment and wildlife.ˣᵛᶦᶦᶦ Additionally, the possibility of holding Pemex to account or demanding a coherent investigation of their operations is slim to none. Energy analyst Poppy Kalesi explained that our best hope is for the US and Canada to “exert pressure on the Mexican government to hold Pemex accountable under the 2016 ‘three amigos’ energy deal, in which the three countries pledge[d] to produce 50% of their power by 2025 from renewable energy sources”.ˣᶦˣ
The lack of corporate transparency, the government cover-ups, and the viral outreach of the shocking footage reveals a novel contribution to the ongoing environmental destruction: “the impact of the fossil fuel industry on underwater ecosystems” and the threats of “offshore oil drilling”.ˣˣ
Perhaps all the facts are enough to drive the point home or perhaps this too will pass into our collective memory, like the wildfire in Australia.
ᶦ Chalk N, ‘Gulf of Mexico fire: Ocean on fire as gas pipeline ruptures’, iNews (London, 3 July 2021) <https://inews.co.uk/news/world/gulf-of-mexico-fire-ocean-on-fire-as-gas-pipeline-ruptures-1085096>
ᶦᶦ Gerretsen I, ‘Ocean fire exposes weak regulation of Mexico’s oil and gas sector’, Climate Home News (Kent, 7 July 2021) <https://www.climatechangenews.com/2021/07/07/ocean-fire-exposes-weak-regulation-mexicos-oil-gas-sector/>
ᶦᶦᶦ Hirsh S, ‘Is the Gulf of Mexico Still on Fire? The Pipeline Ocean Fire, Explained’, GreenMatters (Bristol, 5 July 2021) <https://www.greenmatters.com/p/ocean-fire-gulf-mexico>
ᶦᵛ Woodward A and Massie G, ‘Ocean on Fire: Flames erupt in Gulf of Mexico after gas pipeline ruptures’, The Independent (London, 3 July 2021) <https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/gulf-mexico-fire-gas-pipeline-leak-b1877456.html>
ᵛᶦᶦ Hirsh S, ‘Is the Gulf of Mexico Still on Fire? The Pipeline Ocean Fire, Explained’, GreenMatters (Bristol, 5 July 2021) <https://www.greenmatters.com/p/ocean-fire-gulf-mexico>
ᶦˣ ‘Oil company blames gas leak for fire on ocean’s surface in Gulf of Mexico’, SkyNews, (London, 3 July 2021) <https://news.sky.com/story/oil-company-blames-gas-leak-for-fire-on-oceans-surface-in-gulf-of-mexico-12347641>
ˣ Gerretsen I, ‘Ocean fire exposes weak regulation of Mexico’s oil and gas sector’, Climate Home News (Kent, 7 July 2021) <https://www.climatechangenews.com/2021/07/07/ocean-fire-exposes-weak-regulation-mexicos-oil-gas-sector/>
ˣᶦ Pemex Por El Rescate De la Soberania, ‘Electrical storms and the presence of gas on the sea surface caused a fire in the Campeche Sound’ (5 July 2021) <https://www.pemex.com/saladeprensa/boletines_nacionales/Paginas/2021-184_nacional.aspx> accessed 27 July 2021.
ˣᶦᶦ Yarlagadda T, ‘The ‘Eye of Fire’ Video Tells a Story Few Are Thinking About’, (Inverse, 10 July 2021) <https://www.inverse.com/science/ocean-on-fire-pipeline-burst> accessed 29 July 2021.
ˣᶦᶦᶦ Villamil J, ‘Even Fire at Sea Can’t Touch Pemex Bonds as Mexico Bestows Grant’, Bloomberg (London, 9 July 2021) <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-07-09/even-fire-at-sea-can-t-touch-pemex-bonds-as-mexico-bestows-grant> accessed 19 July 2021.
ˣᶦᵛ Gerretsen I, ‘Ocean fire exposes weak regulation of Mexico’s oil and gas sector’, Climate Home News (Kent, 7 July 2021) <https://www.climatechangenews.com/2021/07/07/ocean-fire-exposes-weak-regulation-mexicos-oil-gas-sector/>
ˣᵛᶦᶦᶦ Hirsh S, ‘Is the Gulf of Mexico Still on Fire? The Pipeline Ocean Fire, Explained’, GreenMatters (Bristol, 5 July 2021) <https://www.greenmatters.com/p/ocean-fire-gulf-mexico>
ˣᶦˣ Gerretsen I, ‘Ocean fire exposes weak regulation of Mexico’s oil and gas sector’, Climate Home News (Kent, 7 July 2021) <https://www.climatechangenews.com/2021/07/07/ocean-fire-exposes-weak-regulation-mexicos-oil-gas-sector/>
ˣˣ Yarlagadda T, ‘The ‘Eye of Fire’ Video Tells a Story Few Are Thinking About’, (Inverse, 10 July 2021) <https://www.inverse.com/science/ocean-on-fire-pipeline-burst> accessed 29 July 2021.