On Mexico’s Frontlines
Cantarell, the world’s largest offshore oilfield, lies underneath the warm, shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico. From the very first drops of crude drawn from Cantarell in 1979, it was clear that the field would exceed not only the expectations of the state-owned oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) but the wildest dreams of the Mexican state. The offshore supergiant would turn Mexico from a net importer into a robust exporter and, as in other resource-rich developing nations, enable the Mexican state to launch an ambitious national development program.
While the country celebrated its oil as both a symbol of national pride and a key economic asset, Mexico’s neighbors, too, were thrilled by Cantarell. With its own economy still reeling from the pain of the 1973 oil shock caused by the OPEC embargo and in the midst of a fresh energy crisis brought on by political instability in the Middle East, the United States watched and waited for the cheap, abundant, non-OPEC crude flow from the nearby offshore Gulf into the marketplace. Production rates for the Cantarell crude oil met and exceeded expectations. In three decades of bonanza, dependence on the shallow-water oilfield in the Campeche Sound only expanded and deepened. While Mexico anchored its own national economic security in Cantarell, the United States increasingly tied its energy security to Cantarell crude. But when the oilfield demonstrated a marked decline beginning in 2005, it became clear that Cantarell was a once-in-a-lifetime discovery. Mexico’s easily extracted oil was dwindling fast. The country was left on the brink of an energy crisis.
Nowhere are the visceral effects of the contemporary conundrum of declining production and increasing global energy demand more apparent than in the communities on Mexico’s Gulf coast. In six coastal states, from Mexico’s border with Texas to the Yucatán Peninsula, natural resources, especially those based on a delicately balanced marine ecosystem, form the basis of the regional economy. In the lightly populated state of Campeche, residents are drawn to the coastal region of the Laguna de Términos—a body of water roughly thirty miles long and fifteen miles wide situated where the Yucatán Peninsula meets mainland Mexico. Marine resources are central to everyday livelihood in Campeche through commercial and recreational fishing, tourism, and the petroleum industry. From among the industrial activities in the southeastern Gulf of Mexico, the most dramatic impacts on the social lives of residents and the stability of coastal ecosystems come from the petroleum industry—including the exploration, exploitation, transport, and refining of petroleum as well as the development of petrochemical industries. The intensity of the exploitation of coastal resources combined with insufficient maintenance of the petroleum-extracting and -transporting infrastructure have led to recurrent accidental oil spills and pipeline leaks, which pollute the soils and coastal lagoon systems along the Gulf coast. Oil development has come at a high price for communities dependent on marine resources. Campeche’s claim to the highest levels of oil and gas production match its highest regional levels of coastal pollution in the air, soil, and water.
Since oil began flowing from the country’s premier oilfield, coastal communities have served as the onshore support network for an intensive exploitation effort to produce billions of barrels of heavy Maya crude. Over the past three decades, fishing communities on Mexico’s Gulf coast have faced mounting pressures—social, political, economic, and, perhaps most of all, environmental—of living on the “frontlines” of the production of the world’s most valuable commodity. While waiting for the promises of plenty in the midst of the boom of oil wealth, communities in the Laguna de Términos region of Campeche on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula have slowly been brought to the brink of collapse.
Meanwhile, the offshore complex of Cantarell is Pemex’s “city on the sea,” a busy network of oil-production platforms approximately fifty miles north of Ciudad del Carmen in the Campeche Sound. The marine area has platforms for drilling, transportation, and telecommunications as well as for eating, sleeping ("flotels"), and recreation. More than 20,000 workers conduct the everyday operations at Cantarell, employed by both Pemex and private multinational oil-services providers including the global powerhouses Halliburton, Bechtel, and Schlumberger. Ciudad del Carmen, a thriving shrimp port from the 1940s through the 1980s, is now better known, perhaps, for oil-industry infrastructure. The sprawling city is dotted with industrial parks, dozens of one-star motels and worker-housing tracts, and a busy heliport. The city of 150,000 permanent residents and thousands of transient workers has been transformed over the past decades from a sleepy—if overgrown—fishing village into a convenient staging ground for offshore oil operations. Amid the workaday buzz of the island city the noise of helicopters overhead shuttling crews of workers in their brightly colored coveralls to platforms for twenty-eight-day shifts or back to land for two-week breaks is a constant reminder of the proximity of the offshore world that dictates the pace of onshore daily life.
The changes wrought across the municipality of Carmen, affecting a broad coastal region of dozens of mostly fishing communities, are part of a historical narrative much longer than the three decades of oil exploitation in the Campeche Sound. Nearly five centuries ago, the Laguna de Términos emerged as a strategic location in the transnational marketplace of natural resource extraction. Fought over, raided, negotiated, and occupied by competing colonial empires, merchants, and pirates, the region’s history through the close of the eighteenth century was one marked by the dramatic pursuit of plunder for profit. After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1825, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw renewed efforts by foreigners to once again benefit from the natural riches of the Laguna de Términos. Well before the discovery of oil, four key resources were exported through the port of Carmen: a colorfast dye made from the wood of the campeche tree, a natural chewing gum from tree sap known as chicle, coconut from plantation-cultivated palms, and Gulf shrimp. All had strong economic impacts on the region much earlier than oil did.
These seemingly disparate resources share several remarkable characteristics based on their strategic political and economic value. As I detail in chapter 2, because of the unique qualities of each commodity, it found high demand in the global marketplace, although each in its own geographical and historical niche. The exploitation of each resource went hand in hand with an assertion of territorial control of land and sea but also with the regulation of settlement patterns in the region. Each resource required a significant amount of capital investment, which often came from the private sector. The region’s resources became increasingly vulnerable to private capital controlled mostly by foreign interests—many of which exercised land and labor management practices that had detrimental effects on Campeche’s natural environment and population. Each cycle of resource exploitation repeated the pattern of failing to benefit the social or economic development of the Laguna de Términos.
Like other communities in the Global South that find oil to be both a blessing and a curse, residents of Campeche, too, have found that multiple natural resources have brought promise and despair. As a frontline community for the strategic exploitation of resources, coastal Campeche accustomed itself to a repetitive rhythm of boom-and-bust cycles as each resource peaked and declined. Given this historical experience, the hopes and expectations following the discovery of the uber–natural resource, oil, were mixed. Would oil be the commodity to finally bring social and economic benefits to Campeche? Or would the age-old cycle of boom and bust be destined to repeat itself, just another chapter in the story of natural resource exploitation in the Laguna de Términos?
In Mexico, oil holds a very special place not only in the popular imagination but also in the national budget. Mexican oil is a foundation for the economy and a cornerstone of nationalism. Lifeblood for the national economy, crude oil is strategically important for the domestic economy. Its revenues fund up to 40 percent of the national budget. In addition to supporting the energy needs of its neighbor the United States through exports, oil also serves Mexico’s own ever-rising domestic energy demand. These twin pressures on Mexico’s most valuable asset place the issue of resource sovereignty—the nation’s ability to maintain control over the exploitation and rights to benefit from energy resources—at the forefront of contentious debates. From the steps of the famous Angel of Independence monument in Mexico City to the gates of refineries in the far-flung regions from Oaxaca to Tamaulipas, the issue of ownership of and the right to benefit from Mexican oil is one that dates back more than a century. According to Article 27 of Mexico’s postrevolutionary 1917 constitution, the principle of resource sovereignty explicitly rejects foreign intervention in the exploitation of the nation’s “strategic” natural resources. Resource sovereignty is a cornerstone of Mexican nationalism. But the ability of the Mexican state to maintain a de facto monopoly over oil production is a highly contested issue—within and among political parties, between state administrations and labor unions, between the state and the citizenry, and between the public and private sectors. The ability to retain resource sovereignty was exacerbated with the discovery of Cantarell. Now more than ever, when nearly every last state asset has been emptied from the nation’s coffers under the pressures of neoliberal globalization, the ownership of Mexican oil is an increasingly volatile issue in Mexican public life. Vociferous nationalist protests greet even the subtlest hint of privatizing Mexico’s most prized and valuable national patrimony.
In this charged atmosphere, high demands and even higher expectations have been placed on the billion-barrel Cantarell oilfield, revealing the deep dependence of the nation’s hydrocarbon industry on the offshore complex. Since its discovery, Cantarell has contributed up to 80 percent of the nation’s production. Of this, between 60 and 80 percent is directed to exports. Nearly all of the oil exported from Cantarell is Maya crude—a heavy, sour crude that is sent unrefined to the United States. For nearly three decades, Cantarell was able to produce enough oil to meet the seemingly unrealistic demands: to fund national development programs, fuel everyday needs of a national budget, pay off Mexico’s enormous foreign debts accumulated upon the supergiant oilfield’s discovery, and produce enough oil to remain among the top three sources of U.S. imports. But while the oil flowed abundantly from Cantarell’s shallow Gulf wells, Pemex failed to invest in new exploration. Politicians and bureaucrats of several presidential administrations holding the parastatal (state-owned company) purse strings relied on the generosity of Cantarell to outlast their own sexenios (six-year terms), and Mexico robustly entered the twenty-first century with record-high rates of extraction. But these could not last. Now, scientific experts, government officials, and laypeople alike agree that Cantarell, Mexico’s most significant Gulf oilfield, reached its point of maximum extraction, or peak, in December 2003, only to fall into a precipitous and alarming decline.
On the frontlines, the problem of living with oil is, ironically, exacerbated by the prospect of Cantarell’s collapse. Now, residents as well as state and municipal governments of Mexico’s Gulf coast are facing the complex realities of dealing with a natural environment affected by thirty years of the presence of the oil industry and an uncertain future in the shadow of the oilfield’s peak. Those who live and work in the fishing communities along the Gulf coast in the state-designated “oil-affected” regions of Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Tabasco, Chiapas, and Campeche are understanding resource sovereignty and making their own claims to oil and other natural heritage resources by reaching into generations of local experience with the impact of oil exploitation on their everyday lives and livelihoods. Local residents are wrestling with the legacy wrought by Pemex and private oil-services providers upon the natural environment, including the region’s once-plentiful fisheries. In the face of the oil crisis, residents as well as municipal and state officials are faced with the problem of how to build a sustainable future in an oil-damaged and oil-dependent region that is confronting an imminent shortfall of oil revenues. As experience from the frontlines in Campeche demonstrates, the problem of living with oil certainly cannot be easily resolved by living without oil.
Understanding the Local in the Global Energy Crisis
Mexico’s Gulf coast is an ideal setting for confronting the meaning of “energy crisis” from the perspective of the Global South. While the Global North, historically home to the largest consumers of energy, worries about securing a steady supply of crude from geopolitically stable sources, the South is beginning to emerge with a greater appetite for energy consumption in its own right. The North, enabled by the formidable reach of multinational corporations, has long wielded economic and political power to purchase cheap crude from productive regions with little to no heed for local consequences on their populations or environments. Now a greater percentage of oil reserves are held in the hands of nation-states, allowing for the assertion of resource sovereignty over increasingly valuable—not to mention scarce—cheap, easily exploitable crude. Meanwhile, peak oil appears to everyone—save falsely optimistic oil companies—like an impending reality. These conditions are the stuff of a serious energy crisis.
But what does a twenty-first-century energy crisis look like for the South? This study provides a close look at the local experience of resource peak in the oil-affected communities on the Gulf coast in order to highlight Mexico’s confrontation of the complex issues of sovereignty, security, and stability in what we might call the “post-peak” era. As in other frontline sites around the world, a tension exists for Mexico’s Gulf-coast frontline communities over the presence of the oil industry and the needs and desires of local communities as they come to terms with the political, social, economic, and environmental factors that are brought to bear on local life. To illustrate the local nature of the global phenomenon of energy production and energy security, I draw on the work of an interdisciplinary body of scholarship as well as popular media. This perspective is enhanced by my on-the-ground experience of interacting with residents of coastal communities. To capture the rich texture of how people live with oil, I turn to a part of the world I already know well, Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.
I began conducting research in the northern and western regions of the peninsula, in the state of Yucatán, in the late 1990s as a graduate student in cultural anthropology at Rice University. My concerns were heavily focused on how local indigenous Maya people living in and around archaeological monuments claim, give meaning to, and benefit from Mexico’s sites of national heritage. Over the course of my studies of archaeological heritage I developed a deep interest in the rich, vivid, complicated, and contradictory lives of resources—especially as the resources are brought into social contexts, economic markets, and political frays by engaged and often contentious social actors. I learned that in Mexico the most symbolically charged national resources—no matter if they are cultural or natural—are often the most economically valuable and politically vulnerable. Neoliberal pressures to downsize government and state-owned industries throw the future of national patrimony into peril. Frontline communities stood on the brink of benefiting from the patrimony in their midst on the one hand or, on the other hand, losing access to their most valuable sources of income and identity.
Given that archaeological heritage and oil were the two most valuable national patrimonies that remained under de jure constitutional protection in Mexico, I decided to pursue an inquiry into “oil heritage” akin to my previous study on the politics of heritage. How, I wondered, do local communities work with, alongside, and perhaps even against state claims on heritage to assert their rights to maintain a livelihood from natural and cultural resources in their midst? What is more, how do citizens, state agencies, and private-sector actors respond to pressures of resource depletion, now and in the past, as they vie for territorial access to valuable heritage resources?
Communities affected by oil were less than 200 miles away on the Yucatán Peninsula’s southwest coast, in the state of Campeche, and I extended my research interests to Mexico’s Gulf coast, to the frontlines of oil production. In 2007 I began spending time in a coastal fishing community that was dealing with thirty years of intensive oil production off its attractive coastline. Here I put my skills as an anthropologist to work conducting ethnographic research with fishers and their families on the Gulf coast of Campeche. I focus my attention particularly on Isla Aguada, a peninsula with sandy beaches fronting both the Gulf of Mexico and the Laguna de Términos and a small-craft port operating on the lagoon. Across the Puente de la Unidad (bridge) from the island of Carmen, the community’s proximity to the city of Carmen and its location on the main highway draw many to its convenience. With a population barely reaching 3,000 just a decade earlier, the 2010 census shows that Isla Aguada swelled to nearly 7,000 residents in a short time. Longtime self-described “natives” of Isla Aguada identify the town with its small, traditional fishing-village roots and now perceive the community as overrun with immigrants from the interior of Campeche and other Mexican states as well as workers from Ciudad del Carmen. Though some twenty-five miles distant, Carmen’s oil-industry-backed growth has driven up the cost of living, making housing scarce and expensive. A half-dozen informal settlements of newcomers to Isla Aguada have sprung up in recent years, putting a strain on space and infrastructural services. The sprawl to Isla Aguada’s outer limits encroaches on delicate mangrove stands on the edges of town, threatening the region’s environmental heritage within the federally designated Laguna de Términos Flora and Fauna Protection Area (APFFLT or ANP), which covers not only Isla Aguada but the whole island of Carmen as well.
A goal of my analysis is to highlight frontlines as peculiar spaces at once highly localized, especially as defined by their physical proximity to specific resources, and part of wider, denser, transnational networks. Living as they do near the center of intensive oil production and situated as they are within a wider landscape of the national and transnational energy marketplace, residents of Isla Aguada and across the municipality of Carmen have a unique stake in the effects of resource exploitation and resource depletion, especially in the Gulf of Mexico. To call attention to the specificity of the energy crisis faced by these communities, I examine the production of social inequalities as part of the production of the Laguna de Términos as a space of resource exploitation. Thus, I pay close attention to the spatializing tendencies and spatialized effects of resource exploitation and resource depletion not only for developing nations or regions—such as Mexico and the Laguna de Términos—but also for the maintenance of resource supplies in the name of energy security for developed nations, in this case the United States. Isla Aguada sits on the frontlines, which are often the crosshairs of these geopolitical concerns.
Spatial analysis helps us to understand representation, practice, and power on the frontlines of extractive industries across the globe. Frontlines exist where everyday life bumps up against the presence of oil. From the Ecuadorian Amazon with its cesspools of toxic waste to the conflict-ridden Niger Delta to U.S. coasts from Florida to Alaska, communities living in the midst of oil production bear the brunt and the burden of providing energy to the world. Communities on energy’s frontlines host upstream activities such as oil or natural gas drilling. They also serve within the distributed network of “downstream” industries such as tanker ports, refineries, and chemical plants. Hooked into national and global economies and cutting across sovereign and deterritorialized spaces, frontlines are both real and virtual. They are drawn wherever the effects of energy are felt, anticipated, remembered, or imagined.
On the frontlines, diverse social actors are drawn and bound together to form energy communities. These social actors work in, through, alongside—and perhaps against—public- and private-sector agencies and institutions as groups and individuals pose challenges or offer acquiescence to multinational corporations, parastatal companies, or murkier joint ventures. For communities facing the challenges posed by extractive industries, a spatial analysis can highlight many of the contradictions inherent within the logic of resource exploitation—whether the relationship between natural resource wealth and underdevelopment or the collusion between resource-sovereign states and foreign capital. Though they have long existed, these contradictions are exacerbated since the 1980s as a consequence of neoliberalism, characterized by an ideological framework and a host of policies supporting deregulation, liberalization, and notably privatization.
Across more than four centuries of resource exploitation in the Laguna de Términos region, spatial and social relations have been created and re-created by these contradictions. The relatively recent introduction of an offshore extractive industry—set geographically apart from coastal communities—would appear at first glance removed from the everyday lives and experiences of residents. Today, oil is not extracted on shore in Isla Aguada or even in the immediate offshore vicinity. There are no platforms operating inside the protected waters of the Laguna de Términos or in Gulf waters within view of the shore. Yet the community lives the legacy of oil extraction and development. Tales of suspected or anticipated encroachment of oil drills constantly circulate in Isla Aguada. Residents especially worry that Cantarell’s depletion will necessitate the search for oil on land and within the lagoon—locations many believe to be rich with oil deposits.
The effects of oil are, however, ever present in Isla Aguada and neighboring coastal communities. Years of social and economic development problems in Isla Aguada mirror challenges facing the municipality and the region as a whole: poor roads, lack of access to secondary education, and inadequate power and water service. Social problems among young and unemployed people plague the community, particularly the high levels of drug and alcohol consumption. The effects of oil are visceral in the natural environment as well—in the oil slicks that appear on the shoreline, the tar balls that wash up on the beaches, and the corpses of animals including dolphins and endangered species of sea turtles that appear with unnerving frequency. The everyday activity of the oil industry in the Campeche Sound produces a host of emissions through gas flaring, contaminated water discharge, drill cuttings (ground rock covered in a layer of drilling fluid), and crude-oil spills.
Even though Pemex continually shrugs off responsibility for environmental damage in the region, residents of Isla Aguada express skepticism toward the parastatal’s operations in the Campeche Sound. One resident said to me, “Look at what they have admitted to. Imagine what they don’t tell us.” According to a local environmental activist from the Carmen-based organization Marea Azul, spills ranging from major to minor occur all the time, on average once every ten days.
Though more human lives were lost in other accidents, Pemex’s worst accident in terms of the volume of oil spilled was the 1979–1980 Ixtoc I blowout. For decades the Ixtoc blowout held the dubious honor of being the world’s largest accidental oil spill, leaking a quantity of crude surpassed only by the deliberate spillage of oil by Iraqi forces into the Persian Gulf in 1991. In April 2010 both spills were overtaken by the Deepwater Horizon accident in U.S. Gulf waters. Multiple reports, including an official blow-by-blow account by the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEMRE), familiarize us with the Macondo well under the Deepwater Horizon rig. The Ixtoc blowout three decades earlier was eerily similar. A rapid loss of pressure during the drilling process caused the well, more than two miles deep, to blow out and begin an uncontrolled release of oil and gas into the Gulf. The volatile mixture caught fire, igniting the drilling platform itself. The platform was destroyed and collapsed over the wellhead on the ocean floor. At the peak of the Ixtoc I spill, oil poured out at a rate of up to 30,000 barrels and possibly as much as 50,000 a day. For 290 days the uncapped well leaked oil into the Gulf. In total, the Ixtoc spill released more than 3 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.
Three decades later, the cumulative effects of the workaday activity of extraction match the dangers posed by single spills. Thousands of miles of intricate, aging pipes carry oil, gas, and chemicals such as nitrogen (injected into offshore wells to stimulate recovery) not only under the sea but across wetlands, marshes, and coastal residential communities, too. Leaks and spills within the dense network of pipelines accumulate over time to a heavy toll on the marine and coastal environments in Veracruz, Tabasco, and Campeche’s Laguna de Términos. Yet the public’s attention is more easily drawn away from the long-term effects of oil extraction on shore to accidents involving rigs and platforms on the high seas. Disasters from Ixtoc to the Deepwater Horizon are constructed as extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime events. As exceptional rather than business-as-usual occurrences, public perception is deflected away from the onshore daily grind of living with oil.
With its particularly high toll on human lives, Pemex’s Usumacinta rig accident in 2007 brought the anomaly of offshore tragedy closer to shore. On October 23, under heavy weather, the privately contracted floating Usumacinta drilling rig struck Pemex’s Kab-101 platform. A rescue operation complicated by faulty lifeboats saved almost seventy people but left twenty-two dead. Some of the survivors spent the night riding out fifty-mile-per-hour winds afloat in Gulf waters. At the accident site, a spill commenced and an oil and gas fire raged for days before Pemex claimed control over the situation.
After a yearlong investigation, Pemex blamed the incident on unforeseen, extraordinary weather conditions. But coastal residents sensed the injustice of impunity. After all, they were the ones who witnessed the bodies of dead workers airlifted to Ciudad del Carmen. In the wake of the accident, it was local fishers who found the empty, broken-apart rescue boats on their beaches, forewarning an ominous black tide of spilled crude soon to follow.
Framing oil crises and emergencies—ranging from rig disasters and well blowouts to the declaration of peak oil—as extraordinary events or exceptions produces a heightened sense that offshore operations at Cantarell are displaced from the quotidian experience of living with oil. Offshore represents what we could call a place of exception where, as Agamben has notably described, de jure law is suspended in favor of indistinction. Offshoring creates territories where boundaries between legal and illegal, public and private, transparency and corruption, and access and dispossession are dangerously messy and continuously renegotiated. A local environmental activist in the region described to me precisely this regime of offshore exceptionalism by detailing how offshore operations of Pemex are, to paraphrase, beyond the laws, regulations, and oversight of the de jure strictures of governance, especially when it comes to the environment. For the activist, who has decades of experience fighting for the protection of wetlands, mangroves, and native species largely in the Laguna de Términos, the Gulf of Mexico is a territory where “federal authority doesn’t exist.”
The offshoring of oil production can be understood alongside the broader offshoring trend in economic globalization—the deterritorialization, particularly of finance and production, through the creation of enclaves of deregulation, low-wage labor, and various financial incentives. In a certain sense, the environmentalist critique of Pemex’s operations at Cantarell is correct: through offshore spaces, states take advantage of distance and deregulation to suspend the expected practices of governance over labor and rights. This is the case as the Gulf of Mexico falls further under the sway of private-sector multinationals. However, offshore spaces are “fundamentally and paradoxically coincident with . . . the continued salience of the ‘sovereign’ state”. As the authors describe, the notion of offshore undermines a particular idea of what a state should do, including how it should express claims to “national” natural resources in relationship to territory. “Offshore . . . rewrites, retroactively and proscriptively,” the role of the state. Under conditions of neoliberal globalization, Mexico can use the offshore as a space to practice a seemingly contradictory deterritorialization of resource sovereignty by giving up territorial control over the nation’s most valuable resource through the extensive involvement of the private sector in the everyday activities of the oil industry.
For frontline communities, offshore oil exploitation might appear to displace the visceral experience of living with oil to the no-man’s-land of the high seas. Yet the offshoring of natural resource exploitation hardly means that all of the effects of oil production are absent from local landscapes and livelihoods. As Anna Zalik points out, based on her comparative study of frontline communities in the Mexican Gulf and the Niger Delta, “The petroleum offshore . . . is historically embedded within socially defined space, among populations whose livelihoods form part of fluvial and marine ecosystems.” Coastal communities, as the frontlines for production, are at once inextricably linked to as much as they are distanced from offshore production spaces, and intensive offshore oil production activity has profound implications for populations dependent on marine resources.
The offshore realm of Mexico’s Gulf oil industry may often seem a distant world apart from the everyday challenges of making a living over the past thirty years. After all, few residents of Isla Aguada are going to find employment opportunities on the offshore platforms. But Gulf oil structures their landscape nonetheless. The oil wealth that trickles into Isla Aguada is not through secure employment with the parastatal but instead through social-development aid programs aimed at fishers in the community. The small aid packages offer little in the way of stimulative financial capital for growth or development. Oil wealth also finds its way to Isla Aguada through in-kind “mutual benefit” infrastructural development projects paid for by Pemex. These public works projects entail the construction and paving of roads and bridges, the rehabilitation of school buildings, and the extension of sewer and potable water systems.
For Campeche’s coastal residents, offshore spaces are close rather than distant, intimate rather than alienated, because the Gulf of Mexico is their patrimonial sea. The abundant fisheries of the Gulf have served the local communities for generations as a patrimony inherited from one generation to the next. But Mexican sovereignty over fisheries and more recently oil should mean that as national patrimony the resources benefit all. The patrimonial sea is a highly contested space where the state struggles with foreign entities as well as the private sector for sovereignty over valuable natural resources. In the patrimonial sea, the state also struggles against its own citizenry to maintain control of the ideological charge over the ambivalent meanings of patrimonial assets. In the offshore space of neoliberalism, a fissure erupts between resource sovereignty and territorial sovereignty that nationalist rhetoric cannot abide. As we will see, residents of frontline communities must negotiate not only nationalist words but parastatal deeds within the Gulf of Mexico and the Laguna de Términos.
Time, Space, and the Post-Peak Condition
Trying to come to grips with the complex situation of oil, politics, violence, and everyday life in the Niger Delta, Michael Watts proposes a mode of “thinking about oil” that he calls the "oil assemblage." With particular inspiration from the work of Andrew Barry and Timothy Mitchell, Watts crafts a model for understanding the social, political, and economic as well as cultural and ideological dimensions of oil. Oil assemblages are multiple spaces of visibility and invisibility, with moving boundaries “ideologically draped in the discourses of nationalism, security, scarcity” . Within the oil assemblage, whether the Niger Delta or Mexico’s Gulf region, we might find a “coordinated but dispersed set of regulations, calculative arrangements, infrastructural and technical procedures that render certain objects or flows governable”. Thinking about peak oil as an assemblage—part of a spatial and temporal matrix—rather than an empirical given helps shed light on the complicated politics of living with oil.
Standard notions of peak oil derive from a mathematical model created by Shell Oil geologist M. King Hubbert in the 1950s. Hubbert created a bell-shaped curve of the life cycle of extraction in a given field. The top of the curve, sometimes called Hubbert’s Peak, represents peak oil, the point of maximum extraction after which a terminal production decline begins. While Hubbert had trouble convincing oil-industry colleagues of the limitations of oil supply, the warning bells of peak oil and its dire consequences are now reaching more ears. Experts from petroleum geologists to energy analysts and political scientists are taking up the case of the global emergency of the social, economic, and geopolitical implications of oil depletion.
Peak oil highlights what Watts identifies as the “peculiar temporality” of the oil assemblage in simultaneous orientation toward the future and its movement toward exhaustion. By calling attention to the role that peak oil plays in the oil assemblage, we may heighten our awareness of the limits of fossil fuels while also shedding greater light on the contemporary condition of living with oil on the frontlines. Empirical analyses of actual cases of resource depletion, particularly from the frontlines of the Global South, show that the end of oil is still the continuation of everyday life. Peak oil debates, abstracted from the quotidian realities of the social, political, and economic effects of the decline of supergiants such as Cantarell, are thus put aside. Instead, in the chapters that follow, I examine the post-peak condition and its wider sphere of implications for affecting people’s lives not only in frontline communities but in the broader contexts of governance, policy making, social programs, and the political economy of resources.
As much as Hubbert’s curves and peak oil theories have raised an awareness of the impending end of the fossil fuel age, they fail to tell us how local communities like those on the frontlines of energy production in the Global South will deal with the everyday effects of peaks and declines of oil at the micro level. The current shape of peak oil debates north of the Mexican-U.S. border continually left me frustrated in my search for a framework to understand the way the struggling Cantarell oilfield loomed over my fieldwork in Campeche’s Gulf coast communities. Thinking through the circumstance of peak oil at Cantarell while working with residents in Isla Aguada and learning about their challenges, I found that peak oil per se did not seem wholly pertinent to the issues facing the frontline communities or oil nations of the South. Understandings of peak oil in the context of the dynamics of globalization are particularly lacking in their failure to address the differential nature of peak oil’s effects on the Global North versus the Global South. Furthermore, peak oil has primarily been viewed through the lens of the (mostly Northern) consumer or the highly capitalized transnational oil company. A failure to understand the complexity of peak oil from the perspectives of producing and exporting communities and nations is shortsighted and dangerous. These nodes in the global energy-production chain prop up the consumption patterns of the North. Meanwhile, many producers are rapidly turning into bigger energy consumers themselves. The global landscape of energy production is not only uneven—it is a constantly shifting terrain.
By spatializing peak oil we can see that Cantarell’s peak is only one element within a much broader complex of social, political, and economic problems facing Mexico, the sum of which appears not unlike a recipe for a doomsday scenario. Given the forward momentum toward global peak oil, the Mexican experience surely is instructive for other nations and communities around the world living with oil at the end of the petroleum age. The case of living with oil along the Mexican Gulf offers an opportunity to gain a new perspective on peak oil, lay the groundwork for comparative study, and broaden our understanding of post-peak life and livelihood.
A true sense of post-peak life will not be based on how much or how little oil is at hand for a specific nation or for the planet, whatever the truth of the available reserve numbers. Post-peak life is not simply about the gathering fear that oil is running out. Rather, as the title of this book suggests, it is about how different people are choosing to live or being forced to live with oil now and up to this point. In Isla Aguada, Campeche, post-peak life is the everyday reality of the effects of the decline of Cantarell. For residents there are no debates over the finer points of peak-oil theory, nor do they get caught up in the heady hypotheticals of post-peak apocalyptic scenarios. There are no “doomers”—peak oil apocalyptic thinkers—in Isla Aguada. Instead, post-peak life is more about the grinding realities of living in a community on the frontlines of oil production, where spills, air pollution, and environmental degradation are commonplace. Life today in Isla Aguada, like all frontline communities, is the quotidian experience of living on the downslope, so to speak, of Hubbert’s bell curve so deeply ingrained in our understanding of the rise, peak, and decline of oil production.
While popular interpretations of the Hubbert curve understand the peak to signify the end of oil and thus living without oil, the frontline experience of living with oil is quite different. On the downslope, frontline communities face the insecurity of life and livelihood conditioned by resource depletion. In post-peak life, the end of oil often means more rather than less production. The downward slope entails ramped-up secondary and tertiary recovery in existing fields using invasive chemical techniques to stimulate wells. It means living with consequences as Mexico’s state-owned oil industry turns to nonconventional energy resources—extra-heavy crude, tar sands, oil shale, and deepwater oil—which are technically difficult and costly to obtain. Energy exploitation on the downward slope is dirty, expensive, and dangerous.
I bring my discussion of peak oil to the frontlines of coastal Campeche in order to reassert a politics of space into the overwhelmingly temporal signification of the Hubbert curve. Simply put, while mention of peak oil typically provokes the question of “when,” often asked with a sense of urgency and even alarm, I wish to shift the emphasis of our peak oil concerns to one of “where.” As my familiarity with the implications of peak oil for specific communities affected by the rise and fall in crude production grew over the course of this study, I became more convinced of the need to unpack the spatialized logics of resource peaks and declines, highlighting how resource exploitation territorializes the landscape—whether by the state or the private sector, off shore or on land—and structures social relations, especially concerning labor.
My goal in this study is to map the experience of resource extraction onto the phenomenon of peak oil by detailing the sociospatial character of the post-peak condition. The condition has three major characteristics, clearly illustrated in this case study, that demonstrate the widespread, generalizable nature of the phenomenon—beyond Campeche or Mexico, beyond oil, and perhaps even beyond other natural resources. First, the post-peak condition, as a general scenario of resource depletion, encourages the interests, actions, and interventions of private-sector capital into national territories. In peak resource contexts, multinational oil companies find circumstances ripe for managing and profiting from the exploitation of natural resources, especially those ceded by the state. This is generally concurrent with neoliberal trends in privatization. The second characteristic is the reconfiguration of resource sovereignty in response to challenges mounted by a variety of social actors and institutions vying for control of resources. The third feature is the territorialization of heritage resources—in this case, the making of the Gulf of Mexico into a patrimonial sea, a space of social relations where multiple forms of heritage resources are created, claimed, and contested. As it emphasizes these three characteristics, the post-peak condition exacerbates Mexico’s struggle to maintain resource sovereignty in a global age.
Part 1 traces the contours of peak and decline, both conceptually in the debates over peak oil and as lived through resource exploitation in the Laguna de Términos. In chapter 1 I outline the historical origins of peak oil theory—the idea that resource extraction and depletion follow a bell-shaped curve—and trace how a scientific model moved into the popular imagination through the Hubbert’s Peak graph. I demonstrate that peak oil is a scientific model and an ideological representation through which the view from the North shapes an image of post-peak life that decidedly excludes communities that long served as the source communities for energy commodities. I suggest an alternative perspective, what I call a view from the downward slope, as a form of critical analysis for understanding the lived experience of frontline communities.
Chapter 2 shows how a contemporary “oil crisis” is shaped by historical cycles of resource peaks and declines in the Laguna de Términos. Living with Oil is not your typical tale of how the traditional lifestyle of a sleepy fishing village is suddenly disrupted by the imposition of the oil industry. Instead, the story I tell here is meant to rid the imagination of all fantasy of global modernity having such an impact on local tradition. For at least a half-millennium in the Americas and elsewhere, largely in places tied to the marketplace through colonialism and neocolonialism, globalization has repeatedly and continuously made commodities out of resources, especially those of the natural environment. In and along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, these resources include wild and cultivated products of the sea, coastal wetlands, and tropical forests. Over the course of several centuries the Laguna de Términos region was known for a variety of unusual resources. During the colonial period the region was inhabited by pirates turned loggers exploiting a tree known as palo de tinte. Colorfast black and purple dye was extracted from heartwood of the tree for use in European textile manufacturing. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an enormously valuable sap known as chicle, bled from a different tree, the chicozapote or sapodilla tree, was gathered to the enormous profit of mostly U.S. plantation owners in the region. Destined for chewing-gum factories in Canada and the United States, chicle, like palo de tinte before it, was—however niche—wildly profitable though detrimental to the land and laboring populations. The exploitation of these resources over nearly 500 years can be charted as a series of boom-and-bust cycles, the ultimate of which is peak oil.
In part 2 I go directly to the frontlines to more closely examine the lived experience of the contemporary effects of resource depletion on local communities. In this central, ethnographic part of my study we see the emergence of the next resource in the cycle of commodities of the Laguna de Términos region: commercial shrimp. The goal of my ethnographic research is to show how oil directly and indirectly affects the lives of fishers in the Laguna de Términos. Chapter 3 focuses on fishing: the heritage of subsistence artisanal fishing in Gulf coastal communities, establishment of the commercial shrimping industry in the 1940s at the port of Carmen, the crisis in regional fisheries with the decline in capture coincident with the establishment of oil-drilling operations in the Campeche Sound, and local responses to these circumstances. Oil abundance has not always signified wealth for its producers or the state of Campeche. To the contrary, during the initial boom of Cantarell, the funding mechanisms were not in place to directly support the state or municipality. By the time Campeche was able to advocate for managing Cantarell’s oil wealth, the field was already hitting its peak.
Chapter 4 focuses on how Campeche has attempted to avoid the classic symptoms of resource curse by managing oil wealth on the local level. For fishers, oil proceeds present themselves as Pemex-funded compensation programs. I look closely at the relationship between Pemex and the fishing sector in terms of the various aid and compensation programs but also more broadly at a model of post-peak development as the region faces growing insecurity for local economies still dependent on oil incomes.
Part 3 presents two case studies highlighting two defining features of the post-peak condition: neoliberalization of strategic resources and intensification of exploration and production activities. Chapter 5 presents an analysis of President Felipe Calderón's 2008 energy-reform proposal, known to opponents as the “privatization proposal.” I discuss how the conservative political administration attempted to mobilize a variety of rhetorical strategies against a vocal Mexican Left to appease the private, multinational oil-services companies long involved with Pemex and wishing to obtain more benefits through its lucrative contracting schemes. The debates surrounding the proposal illustrate that in the face of the dramatic decline of the nation’s most prolific oilfield, the state, the citizenry, and the private sector were willing to battle to the last drop of oil to benefit from Mexico's most treasured patrimony. Meanwhile, as the frontline communities faced increasing resource insecurity with the decline of Cantarell, the administration demonstrated that it was willing to leverage the de jure national patrimony into a de facto privatization.
In chapter 6 we find that the peak of Cantarell has motivated Pemex to explore new frontiers for oil, including the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Mexico’s challenges in the deepwater Gulf are not only the expected financial and technological hurdles but geopolitical challenges, too. At the same time, as more and more valuable hydrocarbon resources are discovered in the Gulf of Mexico, the territory is transformed into a juridically contested space as well an ideological battleground. While the United States and Mexico sort out maritime boundaries and rights to exploit the Gulf’s deepwater reservoirs, the territory is symbolically transformed into a patrimonial sea, a natural and cultural heritage resource. In the patrimonial sea, the nation’s stake in maintaining resource sovereignty, most of all on the maritime border, is crucial to Mexican nationalism and the energy security of both the United States and Mexico.
I conclude by examining alternatives for constructing post-peak futures in the Laguna de Términos. While fishers displaced from the artisanal sector are becoming ecotourism entrepreneurs, Pemex is devising elaborate plans to intensify production in the Gulf. The Laguna de Términos is now at a critical crossroads between a past based on natural resource extraction and a future requiring a concerted effort toward conservation. Will the post-peak condition allow the region to pursue the sustainable option? Or will the energy-security needs of Mexico and its northern neighbor tip the scales toward a future not unlike its past?
Peaks and Declines
>In July 2009 Ciudad del Carmen, Campeche, marked the thirtieth anniversary of Mexico’s success in offshore oil drilling. Officials used the anniversary to launch more than a week of memorial activities including an orchestral concert, food festival, and artisanry fair. The celebration culminated in speeches by Pemex Director General Jesús Reyes Heroles and Campeche Governor Jorge Hurtado Valdez. But the happy façade of the events hid profound contradictions. All on hand at the celebrations—Pemex, Campeche state and municipal officials, and residents of Carmen and the surrounding area of the Laguna de Términos—had good reason for mixed feelings about celebrating three decades of extracting oil in the Campeche Sound. Between 1979 and 2009, Cantarell rose and fell as one of the world’s most prolific oilfields. In those thirty years, the Pemex chief emphasized in his speech, Cantarell produced an average of 1.9 million barrels per day (mbpd) of crude oil equivalent, representing 72 percent of the national effort and 2.7 percent of global production.1 During the three decades of prolific production, nearly 1.5 mbpd was sent to the export market, generating income for the country of $430 billion.
The thirtieth-anniversary commemoration provided workaday residents and authorities the occasion to look back and consider the region’s role in natural resource exploitation, not only since the discovery of oil in the Bay of Campeche in the 1970s but long before. As Governor Hurtado pointed out in his speech, across time the ecologically rich and diverse region has generated multiple “cycles of bonanza,” but time and time again the resource boom has ended in a bust. Hurtado did not have to remind his audience of the local effects of the boom-and-bust cycles of natural resource exploitation in Campeche or of the difficulties that come hard and fast following a bonanza. Indeed, peaks and declines are part of a lived reality in the Laguna de Términos. Longtime residents, despite their lack of formal education, know the stories of the parents and grandparents and great-grandparents who worked in Campeche’s landscape gathering chicle and logging palo de tinte. Most everyone listening to Hurtado speak about the vicious cycle of Campeche’s booms and busts knew from their own life experiences the bonanza and bust of the shrimp industry. As they stood within sight of Carmen’s desperately sad and depleted industrial port, the reminder of a once-thriving shrimp industry now decimated served as a daily lesson in resource economics. More than just a quotidian experience, living this cycle became, over the course of several generations and at least four commodities, ingrained into the public consciousness. Carried from the colonial era through to the present day, this cyclical culture developed in the Laguna de Términos region as a daunting heritage of underdevelopment.
How could frontline communities in the municipality of Carmen break out of the cycle, given the weight of their terrible inheritance? What was the path to the future after the peak of Cantarell? In his speech Hurtado was caught in a position of having to be respectful and somewhat deferential as a state governor, yet he also stood absolutely firm about the strategic importance of Campeche to Pemex. Hurtado asserted that the discovery of oil in the 1970s “breathed new life into our expectations for development.” Thirty years on, the governor stressed that Campeche had built a relationship of “alliance” and “growing harmony” with Pemex, revealing a less than harmonious past that needed a post-peak future with local sustainable development at its center. For state and municipal politicians, the celebration left the state poised on the edge of an abyss. On one side was the salvation offered by the proceeds of petroleum to the state. Over the dark edge was the seemingly undeniable situation that Cantarell was in a serious decline. For Campeche state officials and even more immediately for those governing the municipality of Carmen, the funding scenario was dire.
For Pemex, the thirtieth anniversary should have marked a moment of sober reflection on both successes and serious setbacks. True enough, Cantarell marked the parastatal’s first offshore venture. In 1974–1975 the first exploratory well, Chac-1, named for the Maya god of rain, was drilled to a depth of 11,600 feet below the seabed forty-three miles north of Ciudad del Carmen in the Bay of Campeche. Others soon followed. By 1979 oil was flowing. By 1981 the Cantarell complex was producing almost 1.2 mbpd. Given that Pemex only had onshore experience, the project was ambitious. When it was built, Cantarell was the largest offshore development in the world. But Pemex neither developed nor drilled Cantarell without considerable help from foreign oil-services companies including Brown and Root, Bechtel, and Schlumberger that have continued to ally closely with Pemex throughout the years of offshore success to the tune of millions upon millions of dollars in contracts.
Over the course of three decades, Pemex developed an overreliance on the Bay of Campeche for upward of three-quarters of the total national oil production. At the moment of the thirtieth-anniversary celebration, however, Gulf production was in freefall. The parastatal’s public propaganda machine betrayed no anxiety, showing only pride in Pemex’s success at its first offshore undertaking. A fifteen-minute Pemex video, “30 aniversario de la Sonda de Campeche,” released in July 2009 for the commemoration, stresses Cantarell's crucial role in modernizing Mexico. But the robustness of Pemex’s claim on unmitigated success belies the harsh reality of Mexico’s very real oil crisis indicated by the parastatal’s own numbers. In December 2003 Cantarell reached its highest level of daily production with 2.2 mbpd. The oilfield’s peak year is considered 2004, when output averaged 2.1 mbpd. Then production fell a staggering 31 percent, to below 1.5 mbpd by 2008 (Pemex 2008a). In 2009 Cantarell, once the prolific, Maya-god supergiant, contributed less than 0.7 mbpd to the national production, hitting a decline rate of just over 34 percent from 2008. Cantarell’s drop in production hurt Mexico’s total Gulf oil production by 14.5 percent in the same period (Pemex 2009a: 19).
Those keeping tabs on Cantarell from north of the border are painfully aware that Mexico’s energy crisis is far from exclusively a domestic concern. It is also on the radar in official U.S. energy reports (and only occasionally reported by media outlets) because Mexico’s energy security is U.S. energy security and therefore a matter of national security. The United States is highly dependent on Mexican oil. For three decades, Mexico has been a key supplier of crude to the United States. In 2006 Mexico was the second-largest supplier to the United States, with 1.7 mbpd, an all-time high (EIA n.d.). In late 2007 Mexico slipped from second to third top supplier of oil to the United States, a telling sign of what was to come. In 2008, when Cantarell’s production fell by 30 percent from its peak in 2004, Mexico’s crude exports to the United States dropped to less than 1.2 mbpd, the lowest volume since 1994 (EIA n.d.). The United States closely monitored Cantarell’s decline with concern about a further drop in Mexico’s domestic production. The two countries had become closely linked by the traffic in Gulf crude. As Mexico’s production fell, so did the energy security of the rest of North America—with consequences that would echo across the globe.
“Carmelitas” countered the insecurity and doubt about the region’s oil future in the celebratory atmosphere of the thirtieth-anniversary commemoration with a show of pride in their role in supporting offshore oil. Local residents were proud that they hosted Mexico’s greatest feat of technical and industrial prowess and that “their” oil contributed substantially to the national budget. Along with transforming the country through a national development program, offshore oil production had indeed changed the course of everyday life in the coastal communities of Campeche. Certain aspects were definitely for the better. Ciudad del Carmen had more to offer as an urban space, including hospitals, schools, and a university. But residents also worried about the uncontrolled growth on the island with inadequate infrastructure. A true division between rich and poor was visible.
One of the worst facets was the palpable damage to the natural environment. The port city, burdened with hosting oil services for the world’s largest offshore field, was also within the watershed of one of the ecologically richest areas of Mesoamerica. The mangroves around the Laguna de Términos provide habitat to thousands of species of water and land plants, birds, and animals. Several endangered species are trying to survive in the area. As the human population grows and industry intensifies, ecological damage has the potential of multiplying. This has occurred, it seems, even under the federal protection the entire region now has. The anniversary speakers failed to mention environmental effects over the decades of production at Cantarell.
The unwanted effects of living with oil would not be mitigated by the peak of Cantarell. Carmelitas worried about the precipitous decline of the oilfield and what this meant for local development. While the Mexican state and foreign interests had long benefited from Gulf resources in the form of oil wealth and oil energy, the municipality of Carmen had only recently negotiated with Pemex significant direct local income from oil revenues. For less than a decade, more substantial cash and in-kind revenues were directed to support an agenda for local development of sanitation, health, communication, and education. Roads were under repair, electricity was finally reaching rural homes, and potable water systems were installed. Far-flung communities were slated to receive ambulances so a person with chest pains or a woman in labor had a chance of reaching a hospital in time. Classrooms were coming online so local children had the potential to become competitive in the emerging high-tech industries. Various programs funded by Pemex as well as regular budgetary support from oil incomes were making this possible. Was it all going to end as it was just beginning?
Standing before his constituents on the shores of the Bay of Campeche, Governor Hurtado Valdez asserted, “Pemex has been here thirty years and will be here at least another thirty years more.” But did the governor have the assurance of Pemex that the parastatal would commit to its end of the relationship? Given the effects of the first thirty years, was a long-term relationship with Pemex one that Campeche’s frontline communities wished to have as part of their destiny? Campeche’s long experience as a region of natural resource extraction left little hope for a post-peak future of economic and social development. The long-suffering, underdeveloped Carmen and hinterland communities were still without basic needs such as water and electricity and had limited access to health care and education. After all, Carmen, as the very frontline for servicing the offshore oil production, had only a few years earlier won the right to benefit from becoming an “oil-affected” municipality. The riches of Cantarell were just beginning to provide for coastal Campeche. Now that the area had come so close to these opportunities, would they all disappear?