Anti-colonial memory and AMLO’s energy policies

What is really behind Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s so-called ‘fossil fuel fixation’?

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Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaking during a news conference at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico on June 29, 2020 [Mexico''s Presidency/Handout via Reuters]

At the April 22 virtual Climate Summit organised by United States President Joe Biden, as various countries made commitments to curb their greenhouse emissions, Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) defended his country’s continuing use of fossil fuels.

He shared that Mexico has discovered three large hydrocarbon deposits, but tried to present this as a development that should please rather than alarm the participants of the summit.

“Although we have discovered three big reserves of hydrocarbons,” the president said, “the oil we’re discovering basically will be destined to cover fuel demand in the domestic market, and the practice of exporting crude will be ended.” By doing so, he added, “we will help avoid the excessive use of fossil fuels.”

While AMLO’s statements at the summit drew extensive criticism from many who saw them as “a declaration of war against clean energy”, there is more to the Mexican leader’s stance on fossil fuels than blatant disregard for the climate emergency.

Asserting ‘energy sovereignty’

Domestically and internationally, AMLO has long been framing Mexico’s dependence on large imports of oil and gas as a crisis of “energy sovereignty”. In response to this crisis, he has strengthened state-run corporations in the electricity generation and fossil fuel industries, and he has also prioritised the use of fossil fuels. These reforms were part of AMLO’s aggressive efforts since 2019 to (re)nationalise energy and fossil fuels in the country.

The idea of “energy sovereignty” has its roots in Mexico’s anti-colonial struggle, during which the country ousted the exploitative US and British companies and nationalised its fossil fuel industry to assert its sovereignty over its resources.

By the turn of the 20th century, the US and British companies had started extracting oil reserves in Mexico. Although by 1921 these companies had expanded Mexico’s oil production until it was second only to the US, the wealth generated from this extraction flowed back to the US and Britain, and did very little to improve the economic conditions in Mexico – a typical colonial relationship of exploitation.

These foreign companies only had British and US nationals in their key positions. Moreover, a Mexican worker received half the wages and poorer housing for doing the same job as a foreign worker.

Article 27 of the 1917 Mexican constitution gave the Mexican government the right to expropriate resources such as oil. But the implementation of this article proved impossible due to fierce resistance by the oil companies which were backed by the US Department of State.

The presidency of Lazaro Cardenas (1934-1940) marked a significant transformation: he oversaw massive land redistribution and supported workers’ right to strike. On the issue of oil, the Mexican authorities under his administration sided with striking Mexican workers and asked the oil companies to increase wages and benefits, but the companies refused to comply.

In response, Cardenas used Article 27 and nationalised the foreign oil companies in Mexico on March 18, 1938 – which led to the formation of state-run PEMEX with its monopoly over fossil fuels. Around this period, Cardenas also created state-run CFE, responsible for the generation and distribution of electrical energy.

The move triggered massive celebrations across Mexico, including a six-hour parade in Mexico City. Although the US considered military intervention in response to the nationalisation, it chose not to intervene because the Second World War was beginning and the US was in need of allies.

Nationalisation of foreign energy companies in Mexico was a notable event not only for the country but also for global colonial history: Mexico, a country that would soon be part of the “Third World” bloc, stood up to imperial powers and prevailed. Similar assertions of sovereignty elsewhere had quite different outcomes – the US-orchestrated 1953 coup in Iran, which came after the Iranian government nationalised British and US oil companies, forever changed the trajectory of the country.

Despite all the success achieved through nationalisation, in recent decades successive Mexican presidents gradually liberalised the energy sector, which resulted in Mexico becoming dependent on countries like the US for energy imports despite possessing its own fossil fuel reserves.

AMLO’s immediate predecessor, Pena Nieto, completed the liberalisation of the energy sector and invited foreign companies to exploit Mexican oil reserves. His alleged rationale for doing so was to make the sector more efficient and tackle massive corruption in PEMEX.

Nieto’s move, however, did little to tackle corruption – officials from his administration such as Emilio Lozoya have been accused of taking massive bribes from private companies bidding for energy contracts.

Moreover, the liberalisation of the energy sector has been perceived by many in Mexico, including AMLO, as a return to the destructive exploitation of the pre-1938 era.

In this context, it is easy to see the reasoning behind AMLO’s rhetoric of “energy sovereignty” and insistence on ending the country’s energy dependence at any cost. Nevertheless, the Mexican president’s commitment to using fossil fuels should still be assessed critically in the face of the ever more urgent global climate emergency.

Turning a blind eye to the climate emergency

The criticism of AMLO’s recent moves – from Western government officials, lobbying groups and notably, the Western press – have been intense and followed two themes. The first is market-oriented. For instance, the US Chamber of Commerce (USCC) – which is committed to maintaining the neoliberal order – said it is worried that AMLO’s energy policies may undermine the “confidence” of foreign investors and prevent Mexico from receiving investments it desperately needs. Moreover, it raised concerns that such policies would result in an unjust monopoly – perhaps because in this case the monopoly would not be under USCC control.

The second criticism is environment-oriented, whereby AMLO is critiqued for his “fossil fuel fixation”. This critique is quite justified, but outside of Mexico – and especially in the West – it is articulated in a way that completely ignores what AMLO is trying to achieve by supporting fossil fuels: energy sovereignty.

The Western media and government officials’ refusal to acknowledge Mexico’s long history of colonial exploitation when analysing – and criticising – AMLO’s energy policies reflects the West’s historical amnesia and hypocrisy.

But there are also clear indications that AMLO – who is attempting to frame his actions as anti-neoliberal and anti-colonial by invoking “energy sovereignty” – is not taking the climate crisis seriously and his policies are doing little to build an alternative to neoliberalism.

How can AMLO be anti-colonial or anti-neoliberal while replicating the Western modes of unsustainable, capitalistic exploitation of resources by burning fossil fuels?

AMLO’s energy policy is clearly oil-oriented with no signs of incorporating renewable energy. The National Energy Plan 2020-2024 states that to achieve “sustainable energy self-sufficiency” it is necessary to increase hydrocarbon exploration, infrastructure and processing capacity. It envisions achieving energy sovereignty through hydrocarbons and “clean energy”, where the latter includes natural gas and nuclear energy.

But “energy sovereignty” achieved through hydrocarbon exploration and investments can only last as long as fossil fuel reserves do.

Known reserves of oil and natural gas in Mexico will only last 9.3 years while world reserves are estimated to last for 40-50 years. The lifespan of AMLO’s energy sovereignty, therefore, might be as short as a decade.

Moreover, looking at the entirety of AMLO’s environmental policies, it is difficult to say his administration is not denying the climate crisis. In its latest pledge to the Paris Agreement submitted in 2020, Mexico has completely dropped its 2015 commitments to derive 35 percent of the energy it needs from clean sources by 2024 and 43 percent by 2030. The head of the Environment and Natural Resources Department has been changed three times in two years. Its last Secretary, Víctor Toledo, presented his resignation after he was found saying in a leaked audio that AMLO’s administration does not have a “clear goal, it’s full of contradictions and different interests” regarding environmental policy. The Department’s budget has been slashed, while federal budget allocations have increased for oil refineries and environmentally hazardous tourism projects like Tren Maya. Moreover, according to the group Climate Transparency (PDF), approximately 73 percent of the country’s climate change budget is being spent on transporting natural gas.

Lastly, AMLO has linked corruption in the energy sector with privatisation and neoliberal policies of the earlier administrations.

While this allegation has plenty of merit, AMLO is strengthening PEMEX and CFE as if these institutions have not been replete with corruption, and as if no stringent measures are needed to tackle this corruption.

“Anti-corruption” for AMLO’s administration has been more about rhetoric and less about action. For example, the former leader of the PEMEX union, Carlos Romero Deschamps, “voluntarily agreed to stop working” and walked away with astounding retirement benefits in March despite being under investigation for corruption. Similarly, CFE’s General Director Manuel Bartlett, who was accused of illegally obtaining properties worth more than $42m and concealing them from public records, received AMLO’s full support and was eventually acquitted.

In sum, while the fate of Mexican people, and humanity at large, hangs in the balance due to the climate crisis, we see on one hand the arrogance of Western (neo)imperial powers, which do not care to acknowledge – let alone apologise for – their exploitation of Mexico. On the other hand, we have heads of postcolonial states, such as AMLO, whose anti-colonial and anti-neoliberal rhetoric is in mismatch with the urgent needs of climate policy and people.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.