From the Magazine Magazine

Energy

Open Season

With the unlocking of northern Mexico’s vast fuel deposits, there’s trouble on the horizon for wildlife.

A few feet from the U.S. border, Juan Carlos, a Mexican rancher, drives across his land, pointing out the natural gas wells that have started to appear here. He has the cautious gaze of a man sitting on top of a gold mine, excited yet nervous. “Developing Mexico’s oil and gas can make a lot of dreams come true,” says Juan Carlos. “Or be one long nightmare.”

Mexico, one the world’s most closed-off energy sectors for the past 70 years, recently opened its doors to foreign companies interested in exploring and developing the country’s abundant fossil fuel reserves. The northeastern region’s copious deposits—an estimated 6.3 billion barrels of oil and 343 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—are buried within a 59,000-square-mile shale formation straddling the border, known as the Burgos and Sabinas basins on the Mexican side and the Eagle Ford basin on the U.S. side.

The economic potential is staggering: Tapping the largely untouched reserves could generate 500,000 new jobs by 2018, and Mexico’s state oil company, Pemex, expects at least $10 billion annually in private investment. Officials and residents hope an influx of energy developers will not only bring prosperity to the region but also drive out the murderous Zetas and Gulf drug cartels, which currently siphon more than $1 billion in oil a year from state-run pipelines. (The situation is so bad that “Juan Carlos” asked that we use an alias for fear of possible cartel reprisal.)

Economic and security benefits aside, an energy rush could also trample one of the country’s greatest natural resources: its biodiversity. Beyond the ringtails and hog-nosed skunks that roam the arid grasslands, the area is brimming with birdlife, including Green Kingfishers, Elf Owls, Hook-billed Kites, and Long-billed Thrashers. As land is cleared and roads, wells, and other drilling infrastructure is developed, this wild bounty will inevitably be disturbed. How much so will depend on where exactly wells are built and the extent of operations. “The bigger the oil and gas footprint, the more habitat is affected,” says Fred Bryant, a wildlife biologist and rangeland specialist at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, who leads a team of experts who restore native plants after oil and gas operations.

A look across the border to Texas shows what energy development can mean. The nearly 7,000 new wells that have appeared since 2008 are causing growing health concerns. From Laredo to San Antonio, Texans near drill sites have reported troubled breathing caused by the ozone, dust, and fumes spewed by extraction operations. And researchers have found elevated levels of heavy metals like arsenic in groundwater near fracking sites. Plants and wildlife are at risk, too: Bryant has seen nonnative plants creep in on disturbed land. “If these nonnative grasses gain too much ground, they can create a monoculture,” he says. “Then you lose a region’s diversity of plants and insects.” That loss of diversity, of course, can reverberate up the food chain.

It’s all got conservationists worried, but Magdalena Rovalo, general director of the Monterrey-based environmental group Pronatura Noreste, is most nervous about fracking’s effects on water. Fracking is water-intensive—a single drill site could devour as much as 5 million gallons over its lifetime—and could create a new burden on a water table already stressed by a recent decade-long drought. “That, I think, is the biggest environmental concern that needs to be addressed,” says Rovalo. 

John Beavers, vice president of Audubon’s International Alliances Program, agrees. “It’s hard to see how [developers] will be able to use the amount of water they need for this type of extraction,” he says,“without affecting the dwindling supply vital for people’s consumption, agriculture, and existing flora and fauna.”

Mexican officials swear that the country’s environmental laws are strong enough to counter such fears. “The environment is a priority,” insists Javier Treviño, a Mexican congressman who was instrumental in the energy reform’s passage. “This isn’t about destroying the land but about creating jobs while protecting the environment.”

Mexico did vow to create a new environmental regulatory body, the National Agency for Industrial Safety and Environmental Protection. It’s a promising step, but many state regulatory agencies are rife with corruption, and there’s no guarantee this one would be immune.

By now we’re used to stories of surrendering environmental common sense to the seductions of economic development. But Juan Carlos, the rancher, can see a different ending to this one, nodding toward the border: “The biggest lessons of what to do and what not to are just steps away.”