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GROVE DANGER

Mexico is illegally destroying protected mangrove trees to build an $8 billion oil refinery

Mexico’s state-owned oil company Pemex has defied a government order by cutting down protected mangrove trees on the site where president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has ordered the construction of an oil refinery, according to sources familiar with the project. Satellite images show a landscape razed presumably to accommodate the controversial $8 billion project.

The populist president has made the Dos Bocas refinery project, located in his home state of Tabasco, central to his bid (paywall) to revive Pemex from its current dysfunction. Now Latin America’s second-biggest company by revenue, Pemex drove the Mexican economy in the 1960s and 1970s but lost $35 billion last year. Critics say the refinery isn’t economically viable.

So far, the project has come at the cost of a forest of mangroves, a tree treasured by conservationists and important in combating climate change. The trees create complex ecosystems that provide almost 6% of Mexico’s GDP, according to the University of California, San Diego. Swaths of jungle, including a few dozen hectares of mangrove, were cut down by a third-party company shortly after then-president-elect Lopez Obrador announced the project in July 2018. The permit to begin work wasn’t issued until the next year. In January 2019, Mexico’s environmental regulator ASEA fined the third-party that caused the destruction $700,000. When ASEA finally gave Pemex a conditional building permit in August 2019, it barred the company from interfering with the remaining area of mangroves.

However, since that order, more mangroves and other vegetation have been cut down in several areas on the site and there are multiple paths seemingly created to provide vehicle access where mangroves previously lived, satellite images show. In private meetings, ASEA had denied requests made by Pemex over several months last year to chop down more mangroves in order to build a bridge out of the swampy area, two sources familiar with the project told Quartz. Several smaller areas were also cleared in the period between ASEA handing down the fine in January and issuing the permit in August.

Pemex and president Lopez Obrador’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story. ASEA declined to comment until it had seen the published article.

Those responsible for the deforestation could be imprisoned for up to nine years should a site inspection confirm that more mangroves have been cut down, said Gustavo Alanis-Ortega, president of the Mexican Center for Environmental Law, a nonprofit. ASEA could separately impose further fines and even revoke the construction permit, he said.

He called for Mexico’s attorney general and ASEA to investigate the case. “If they are indeed breaking the law [at Dos Bocas], this shows that there is no real commitment to legality and the rule of law” in Lopez Obrador’s government, Alanis-Ortega told Quartz.

But it’s unlikely ASEA will crack down on Pemex, sources familiar with the project said. Shortly after issuing the restrictive construction permit, ASEA’s executive director Luis Vera Morales resigned. His replacement, Angel Carrizales Lopez, is a former aide to Lopez Obrador. He had been nominated by the president to other regulatory jobs last year, but was rejected by lawmakers each time. His appointment to run ASEA didn’t require legislative sign-off.

Carrizales has since canceled the fine against the third-party which admitted to the original destruction, sources told Quartz.

“[Carrizales] is afraid of taking any measure…because he is always trying to get on good terms with the president,” said one source familiar with the matter. “He would do whatever—maybe not authorize directly the cutting of the trees but he won’t look towards there, he will allow everything to happen and turn a blind eye.”

Mangroves, which generally live in shallow coastal water, capture three to five times more carbon than inland flora and help protect against storms and flooding caused by climate change. The forest’s destruction has further exposed the site, which was already at risk of flooding. Pemex was warned in 2014 that the port at Dos Bocas ranked seventh in the list of all the company’s facilities most threatened by climate change out of 35 listed in a presentation given to Pemex and seen by Quartz. The presentation, which was compiled by the Centro Mario Molina, an environmental nonprofit, ranked Dos Bocas’ risk of flooding at 5 out of 5.

When Lopez Obrador visited Dos Bocas in December 2018 to place the first stone of its construction, he was reportedly unable to access the cleared area due to flooding. The ceremony had to be carried out on a nearby plot, El Universal newspaper reported.

The mangrove-covered area had been home to many endangered animals, including a jaguarundi wild cat, and protected species of snakes, iguanas, and birds. About a decade ago, Pemex executives proposed the site be made a private nature reserve to stop future building there, according to Reuters.

After little over a year in office, oil-loving Lopez Obrador has gained a poor reputation on protecting the environment. The president has canceled auctions for renewable-energy projects, tried to upend a government scheme to encourage green investment, and his government hopes to cut subsidies given to renewable-energy companies.

“Environmental issues are completely relegated—they don’t figure in this administration’s agenda,” Alanis-Ortega told Quartz in a phone call.

The Dos Bocas project has been particularly controversial. Lopez Obrador says it will help wean Mexico off foreign oil. Critics say it would be cheaper to import fuel than to refine it via this costly project, which they believe will be more expensive than the government’s $8 billion price tag.

“The whole idea of energy sovereignty and energy security, the idea that things should be done in Mexico, is more ideological than economically rational,” said Lisa Viscidi, director of the Energy program at the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank focused on the Americas. “The idea of building a refinery economically doesn’t really make sense.”

Mexico, which has the fourth-largest area of mangroves in the world, targeted the conservation and recovery of the species as part of its Paris Agreement commitments (pdf, p. 28). But the trees are being chopped down all over the country, and at current deforestation rates Mexico could lose half its mangrove population in the next 50 years, according to the University of California, San Diego.

An earlier version of this article attributed research to the University of San Diego. It was in fact the University of California, San Diego.

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