The promise of Mexico’s President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, marks a major win for environmental activists.
When asked at a July 31 press conference about the potential risks associated with the technology, Lopez Obrador made it clear his incoming administration will change course. “We will no longer use that method to extract petroleum,” announced López Obrador, according to the Associated Press.
Fracking is an extreme technology used to extract oil and gas from shale and other rock formations. The process involves injecting huge amounts of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to free reserves trapped deep underground. While fracking has been around for decades, it exploded in the mid-2000s, when the technology was combined with horizontal drilling and other technologies.
Fracking has also been the subject of much criticism. While some have promoted this technology as a favorable alternative to coal, others have rightly criticized it as a “bridge to nowhere.” They have argued that the technology has led to an increase in methane emissions, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and slowed the development of renewable technologies. In a 2016 piece for The Nation, climate activist and co-founder of 350.org Bill McKibben wrote, “One of the nastiest side effects of the fracking boom, in fact, is that the expansion of natural gas has undercut the market for renewables, keeping us from putting up windmills and solar panels at the necessary pace.”
A host of other concerns are also raised by fracking. A 2016 report by the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that fracking has the potential to contaminate drinking water supplies. A recent study by the Concerned Health Professionals of New York and Physicians for Social Responsibility linked fracking to a higher risk of asthma, birth defects and cancer. The technology has also been connected to increased seismic activity.
This process has revolutionized the oil and gas industry in the United States, where domestic oil and gas production has increased dramatically in recent years. In 2012, the United States became the world’s top petroleum and gas producer, largely as a result of the nation’s fracking boom.
Fracking has expanded rapidly in Latin America. Argentina, with its Vaca Muerta rock formation holding one of the world’s largest shale gas reserves, is considered the fracking capital of the region. Colombia has been in the exploratory stages of embracing this technology after the nation’s Ministry of Mines and Energy gave fracking the go-ahead in 2014.
But fracking has met with growing opposition in the region. Earlier this month, activists and more than 30 legislators presented a bill to end fracking in Colombia. Meanwhile, Uruguay instituted a four-year ban on the technology in 2017.
Mexico, with the shale-rich Burgos Basin on its northern border, has been coveted by private investors looking to exploit the nation’s reserves. The nation opened itself up to fracking and foreign investment in recent years following the passage of a 2014 energy reform bill. In 2017, the country opened the Burgos Basin to private investment for natural gas exploitation. Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned petroleum company, announced its intention to drill more than 27,000 wells in the shale-rich formations in the states of Coahuila, Chihuahua, Tamaulipas and Veracruz by 2045.
Although Lopez Obrador’s stance on fracking is encouraging, he has also spoken out in favor of ramping up oil and gas production in recent weeks, pledging to increase Mexico’s domestic oil production from 1.9 million barrels per day to 2.5 million. Lopez Obrador has stated his administration will invest $9.4 billion in the state-owned energy sector and will oversee the construction of two new oil refineries.
Lopez Obrador offers an intriguing departure from Enrique Peña Nieto’s unpopular administration. While his energy plan appears to be far from perfect, his decision to ban fracking should be considered a major step in the right direction.