Pemex returns to swampy reserve in its quest for oil

PANTANOS DE CENTLA, MexicoPulling to the canal bank after a day of nearly fruitless fishing, José Alberto Valencia cuts his outboard motor and contemplates the return of petroleum exploration to these protected Mexican wetlands.

“They’ll bring jobs, certainly, and that’s a benefit,” says Valencia, 63, who has spent most of his life in a small house at the water’s edge in the Centla Marshes, a few miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. “But then again all the fish disappear. Fishing is a struggle already.”

Pemex, Mexico’s national oil company, has operated natural gas wells inside the 1,200-square-mile swamps for nearly 60 years, long before the ecosystem was declared a protected biosphere reserve. The majority of Mexico’s offshore oil production also flows past the edge of the reserve in a 36-inch pipeline.

But now, with those offshore fields depleting, Pemex plans a return to the marshes and old fields throughout Tabasco and neighboring states to make up the shortfall and end its years-long decline in production.

Planners promise clean exploration and production techniques will leave the reserve unscathed. And the oil monopoly is courting private partners — many of them from Houston – to drill deeper in long-sputtering fields across Tabasco from the marshes.

Mexico needs the petroleum. And locals need the work that new exploration and production will bring.

Still, Pemex’s plans can expect opposition from environmentalists and villagers – likely to be inflamed by state and local elections coming in July of next year.

“It has a serious potential for conflict,” says Miriam Grunstein, who teaches energy law at CIDE, a government-supported think tank in Mexico City. “We are in a pre-election season, and those contracts don’t make a lot of people happy.”

A sweating fringe of marshland and tropical forest hugging the lower rim of the Gulf of Mexico, Tabasco by far holds the largest proven and potential reserves of any of Pemex’s onshore fields. Oil production exploded here in the 1950s but soon took a back seat to the shallow-water fields just off the coast.

Now those offshore wells are running dry. With development of rich ultradeep-water fields years away – and the production in the fractured Chicontepec deposits farther up the coast still disappointing – the company has staked its immediate future on using new technology to squeeze Tabasco’s reserves.

Vast reserves

Tabasco and the fields off its coast account for more than half of Mexico’s claimed reserves and a quarter of prospective oil finds. Getting to that oil means going deeper in old fields and opening new ones. Pemex recently announced that an exploratory well in the center of the state, drilled 21,000 feet deep, is producing 3,700 barrels a day.

Despite the company’s economic importance to the state, fury at Pemex long has infused public life here.

Though Pemex funds local government projects such as road paving, sewer lines and schools deemed of “mutual benefit” to the company and communities, it pays no royalties on the petroleum it pumps from the land. Residents complain they remain uncompensated as the company fouls their soil, water and air.

Shaking down the oil company and its private contractors – for damages real or imagined – has been a way of life for decades. Protesting villagers in the past have closed off access to Pemex wells, refusing access to crews. Pipelines are tapped to steal the crude or to let it spill on the ground, in hopes of filing damage claims.

In the past decade, Pemex has paid out $139 million to settle damage claims from villagers and local governments.

“We feel like we haven’t been compensated for the amount and quality of the oil they have taken from here,” says Aquiles Reyes, mayor of Centla township, which includes most of the biosphere reserve. “The municipality has an obligation to protect the people who live here.”

Vital wetlands

Nourished by two of Mexico’s largest rivers, Usumacinta and the Grijalva, the delta marshes of Centla stand as among the most important wetlands in the hemisphere. Ocean fish breed in the rivers, streams and small bays of the marshes. Endangered jaguars still roam their drier reaches; several hundred species of birds fill their skies.

Planners say the needed equipment will be brought in by barge or helicopter, keeping the company’s footprint to a minimum.

“We’re not using the same technology now as five or six years ago,” says Juan Carlos Escamilla, the Pemex official in charge of planning the exploration of the marshes. “Technically, we can assure people that it’s not going to affect the environment.”

Seismic testing will begin within months and involve drilling several deep wells for monitoring devices and others in which explosive charges will be detonated.

The first testing will be done in a small lagoon brimming with snook, tarpon, alligator gar and other fish, several miles up an old Pemex-made canal from the San Pedro and San Pablo River.

“We see them as the most important wetlands in the Americas,” says Hugo Ireta, an activist with Santo Tomas, Tabasco’s most important environmental group. “If we drill here, it’s going to affect so many things. If they can do this in a protected area, what can they do to the areas that don’t have protection?”

Not as many fish

In the golden light and cooling air of late afternoon, the canal seems a magical place. The faint pink blossoms of maculi trees float onto the khaki green water. Cormorants skid into the canal. Colorful birds fill the sky. A howler monkey growls in the distance.

But a phalanx of gas wellheads hiss on a branch of the canal a short distance away. Fishermen claim the noise and pollution have scared away once-abundant fish. Frustrated by their dwindling catch, Valencia and his neighbors have sealed the lagoon with a padlocked barbed wire gate to keep neighboring villagers from fishing it.

Another boom looms

The marshland’s economy boomed a few years ago as Pemex and contractor crews brought in new wells, repaired old ones and put in pipeline. Dormitory barges were docked on the canal. Supply trucks and heavy equipment crammed the streets of Pino Suarez, the village that served as a staging area, and the river buzzed with crew launches.

The marshes have been quiet in recent years and paying work from Pemex scarce as only a few maintenance workers are ferried to and from the well heads.

But another boom looms – especially if exploration crews find significant gas deposits.

“There will be more money when they start exploring again,” says Gregorio Martinez, 70, who has lived most of his years on the riverbank a few miles downstream from Pino Suarez. “But it’s going to hurt those who live by fishing, those who live out here.”

dudley.althaus@chron.com