Mexico’s environment watchdog forgave a fine on the president’s mangrove-destroying oil project

Satellite imagery of the construction site for an oil refinery. Captured on Feb. 25, 2020.
Satellite imagery of the construction site for an oil refinery. Captured on Feb. 25, 2020.
Image: Planet
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The new head of Mexico’s environmental watchdog canceled a $700,000 fine levied against a company accused of destroying dozens of hectares of mangroves on the site of president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s flagship oil refinery project, sources close to the project told Quartz.

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, the state oil company, 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. Swaths of jungle, including a few dozen hectares of mangrove, were illegally cut down shortly after then-president-elect Lopez Obrador announced the project in July 2018. After lawyers representing a company called Servicios Empresariales del Golfo came forward to admit guilt, the then-director of the country’s environmental regulator, Luis Vera Morales, fined them. The fine included an order to reforest a larger area of mangroves on a different site.

When Vera Morales resigned later in the year, Lopez Obrador replaced him with a former aide, Angel Carrizales Lopez, who has since canceled the fine altogether, two sources told Quartz. Carrizales had been nominated by the president to five other regulatory jobs last year, but was rejected by lawmakers each time. His appointment to run the environmental regulator, known as ASEA, didn’t require legislative approval.

Prominent Mexican environmental lawyer Gustavo Alanis-Ortega has called for an investigation into whether Pemex was actually behind the deforestation. His nonprofit, the Mexican Center for Environmental Law, was unable to even find offices belonging to Servicios Empresariales del Golfo, he told Quartz.

More mangroves have been destroyed since ASEA gave Pemex a construction permit on the condition that it protect the trees, as Quartz earlier reported. Under Mexican law, anyone who cuts down protected vegetation like mangroves without a permit can face a jail sentence of up to nine years, and ASEA has the right to revoke Pemex’s license. But sources familiar with the project don’t expect ASEA to investigate the destruction, at least while the agency is led by Carrizales.

“[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.”

After his appointment last November, the president defended Carrizales against critics who said he didn’t have the experience for the job. “Do you know what’s more important to me than experience? Honesty,” he said at a press conference. “There are people with a lot of experience and who have even graduated from foreign universities and have doctorates, but they are dishonest.”

ASEA declined to comment on this story.

Daniel Wolfe contributed to this story.