In a bid for greater financial equality paired with increased energy security, populist Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has worked to revive Mexico’s small-scale coal mining industry. Two years ago, a plan was enacted to revive the coal mining industry in economically stricken rural areas of northern Mexico, and give preference to buying coal from the smallest mines via the state-owned power utility, the Federal Electricity Commission. Instead of redistributing wealth to the poorest Mexicans and reviving small-town economies, however, López Obrador has unwittingly revived the most dangerous, primitive, and easily exploited forms of coal mining. Earlier this month, 10 miners were trapped in a flooded coal mine in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila. Rescue efforts have been unsuccessful and the government has told the bereaved families of the lost miners that search efforts could take up to a year. "They haven't been able to solve anything," a brother of one of the victims told Reuters. "It's an embarrassment that this country doesn't have rescue personnel who are trained and prepared for situations like these."
Mexican officials have long known of the dangers of these kinds of small-scale mines. In 2012, legislators tried to outlaw these primitive narrow mines, but impeding the coal industry is a political minefield in Coahuila. And now, these kinds of operations are being actively promoted by the federal government. “Experts say that mines so narrow and primitive that only one miner at a time can be lowered into a narrow shaft — and only one bucket of coal extracted — are inherently unsafe,” reports the Associated Press. “There are usually no safety exits or auxiliary shafts” and oftentimes air is pumped in – and water pumped out – through plastic hoses. And, as it turns out, many of these mines are not really benefiting the poorest Mexicans at all, but are illegally subcontracted by larger companies, with workers paid as little as $200 a week.
The revival of coal – and coal deaths – in Coahuila is part of a larger push to de-privatize the energy sector in Mexico and return control to state-owned energy companies and utilities as part of López Obrador’s stated aim to reestablish domestic energy autonomy and security. “The policy is central to Mr. López Obrador’s ambition to reverse what he sees as corrupt privatization of the industry, guarantee Mexican energy sovereignty and return the country to the glory days when oil created thousands of jobs and helped bolster the economy,” writes the New York Times. In the Mexican President’s vision, Mexico’s future is staked on fossil fuels, not renewables.
To this end, the current Mexican administration is strong-arming renewable energy firms out of the national market through regulatory instruments, and is unilaterally ignoring the global call to phase out coal. There is little to no doubt that Mexico, the world’s 15th biggest economy, will fail to meet its global pledges to lower its carbon emissions in the next decades.
To be sure, Mexico is part of a much larger global trend back toward coal as Russia’s war in Ukraine (compounded by continued economic reverberations from the Covid-19 pandemic) puts a global squeeze on natural gas supply. As Europe and much of Asia face a worsening energy crisis heading into the winter months, many countries are begrudgingly firing up old power plants as a last resort. In fact, last month the International Energy Agency (EIA) said that the world is projected to return to its all-time high coal demand before 2022 is over.
In Mexico, however, the return to fossil fuels has not been rueful, but celebratory. “We ignored the sirens’ song, the voices that predicted, in good faith, perhaps, the end of the oil age and the massive arrival of electric cars and renewable energies,” López Obrador told a cheering crowd at the opening of a new oil refinery in his home state of Tabasco this summer. One of the sad ironies here is that the UN categorizes Mexico as “highly vulnerable to hydro?meteorological events” associated with climate change, including devastating droughts and flooding. And much like in the mining industry of Coahuila, it is the poorest Mexicans who will be hit the hardest.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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