Pemex, Mexico's national oil company and the University's new Latin American Initiative partner, has a less-than-perfect environmental record, according to environmental groups and students who have lived in Mexico.
"Pemex has a long history of disrespect for the communities where it extracts and refines petroleum," said Geoffrey Valdes, a Latin American studies and community and regional planning graduate student.
Valdes, who spent the last two summers in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, said pipelines running through eastern Oaxacan communities have spilt petroleum products over the region's agriculture and water supplies, and Pemex trucks have destroyed the roads. Despite complaints by Oaxacan residents, Pemex has
not properly cleaned the spills or indemnified the communities, Valdes said.
"Since February of this year, there's been an ongoing struggle between communities there and PEMEX," Valdes said. "PEMEX has drug it's feet and given only token gestures."
Struggles with PEMEX are not new, Valdes said. In 1996, environmental activism groups occupied oil-drilling platforms in the Mexican state of Tabasco, garnering national and international attention.
"The whole state's considered to be an ecological disaster," Valdes said.
At the time, the community of Nacajuca placed 63,000 claims against PEMEX for contaminating their rivers and lagoons, said Mariana Mora, an anthropology graduate student who lived in Mexico City. Of those, only nine percent were resolved with payments of $363 per claim. In October 2002, the same community demonstrated in front of the municipal presidency with claims that leaks from PEMEX's pipes were contaminating the soil, Mora said.
In August 1999, agricultural and rural workers from the state of Veracruz took PEMEX to court on charges of damaging the environment in the Gulf of Mexico. In August 2002, 80 fisherman blockaded a PEMEX oil refinery in Salina Cruz in southern Oaxaca following demands that they be compensated for damages caused by a diesel fuel leak in the area. As of yet, the fishermen have not been compensated, said Mora, who is a member of Acción Zapatista in Austin.
"Every oil company to some extent or another screws up the environment," Valdes said. However, Valdes said he was concerned that he heard no criticism of PEMEX's environmental record when the University signed its "memorandum of understanding" last Thursday with the company.
PEMEX suffers from an old infrastructure and a heavy taxation by the Mexican government that reduces the incentive to be efficient, said Scott Tinker, director of the UT Bureau of Economic Geology. The company is trying to raise capital to improve its infrastructure but is hindered by a weak economy.
"PEMEX is the first to recognize that it needs to do a better job in terms of environmental protection and safety," said Peter Ward, director of UT's Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies' Mexican Center. "They need to act more concertedly in the future in terms of environmental monitoring and environmental clean-up."
The University's expertise can help them do so, Ward said.
PEMEX's "memorandum of understanding" with the University, the first step in what will hopefully lead to activities such as joint research projects and training programs, was accompanied by meetings with the UT Environmental Science Institute in the College of Natural Sciences, Ward said.
At the meetings, which took place last Thursday and Friday and were also attended by faculty and staff from the UT Jackson School of Geosciences, PEMEX representatives showed interest in learning about the University's environment research projects such as how land and water communities are affected by oil drilling, said Jay Banner, professor for the UT Department of Geological Sciences.
PEMEX also expressed its desire to increase its use of natural gas, which is more abundant than oil and safer for the environment, Banner said.
"What we hope is by working together, we might all get to a more positive future," UT President Larry Faulkner said.