MEXICO CITY — Reflecting the mounting safety concerns plaguing Mexico's state-owned petroleum industry, the governor of Chiapas this week shut down a federally owned and operated oil well that he said posed a health and environmental hazard.
It is believed to be the first time a state has shut down an installation of Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, an entity whose revenue funds more than 30% of the federal government's budget. The closed well contributes little economically to Pemex, but company officials are said to fear that Chiapas' intervention could set a precedent.
The move by Chiapas Gov. Pablo Salazar comes as issues of safety and the environment have become paramount at Pemex. The monopoly's decrepit and poorly maintained network of pipelines has suffered a series of spills and explosions in recent months, several of them fatal.
Among the worst accidents was the April 13 rupture of an ammonia pipeline in Veracruz state, which caused six deaths and the evacuation of 6,000 residents. In Tabasco state, two pipeline explosions within 10 days of each other in June and July left eight dead and 20 injured.
"With the experience of the explosions in Tabasco and Veracruz, the governor of Chiapas has shown that his state takes preventive measures," Salazar said Thursday at a news conference in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the state capital. "We can't lower our guard and wait for our house to burn down without doing anything."
On Friday, Pemex announced that Chiapas and the monopoly had agreed to work together to resolve the impasse over the well, but officials in the southern state vowed to keep the well shut until the safety concerns were addressed.
Such safety issues are widespread in Mexico. According to an association of petroleum engineers, half the 30,000-mile network of Pemex oil and gas pipelines is technically obsolete. Greenpeace Mexico's Alejandro Calvillo said Friday that an average of two environmental emergencies a week now occur in the pipeline network.
"It is a disaster on a national level," he said.
Salazar closed the well, in the village of Santa Cruz in the northwestern part of the state, after months of asking Pemex to complete the facility as planned, said his deputy civil protection secretary, Leonardo Munoz Arellano. The well, which was inaugurated Jan. 1, produced 500 barrels of oil a day that was stored in a tank before being trucked to a refinery.
At issue is the 2 million square feet of natural gas the well also produces per day, which Pemex has been burning off at the wellhead instead of channeling to a processing center as originally planned. The burning sends particulates into the air, causing headaches and breathing problems for Santa Cruz residents, Munoz said.
Mexico's energy minister, Fernando Elizondo, criticized Salazar's action, saying that the well conformed with "all the national and international norms of security" and that there was "no justification for a state authority to intervene in this fashion." Pemex on Thursday asked a federal judge to order that the well be reopened, but Munoz said Friday that the judge had refused to hear the case.
Salazar this week received expressions of support from officials in other Mexican states with Pemex installations. Many called on Pemex to allocate more of its revenue, now at record levels, to repairing its infrastructure.
"There are dozens of communities and thousands of families in constant danger from the pipelines of Pemex, and if necessary we will also shut down oil wells that continue threatening these families," Hidalgo state civil protection director Salvador Nery Sosa said.