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Guest Columnist: The Other End of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline

Texans are a strange bunch. They consume more energy than residents of any other state, yet they oppose the infrastructure necessary for providing energy.

The Trans-Pecos Pipeline, which will carry natural gas from the Ft. Stockton area in West Texas south into Mexico, is a case in point. Discussion, pro and con, has paid little attention to what will happen once gas from the pipeline reaches Mexico.

Given repeated charges by critics, it’s worth considering what the Trans-Pecos Pipeline won’t do. It won’t carry natural gas to Mexico to be re-exported from Mexico to Asia. That is about as likely as someone building a pipeline to carry water from El Paso to Houston.

The demand for natural gas in Mexico has been soaring because it’s used to replace fuel oil in the generation of electricity.

Not only is Mexican natural-gas production declining, but at the current rate of production its reserves will only last for six years. (1) In contrast, natural-gas imports increased by 26 percent annually between 2010 and 2015. (2) Last August natural-gas imports from the United States totaled 4.190 billion cubic feet a day. (3)

Nor will the pipeline put Mexicans (or Texans, for that matter) at undue risk. Moving energy always involves some risk—remember the Exxon Valdez. The record of pipelines indicates that if energy is to be moved, pipelines are the way to go.

The oil industry gives a good indication of pipeline safety. It is roughly 40
times safer to move oil by pipeline than by rail and 100 times safer than by road tankers. (4)

What the Trans-Pecos Pipeline will do is greatly reduce the amount of greenhouse gases and other pollutants by allowing natural gas to substitute for fuel oil in electrical generation. Using natural gas to generate electricity emits only 53 percent as much carbon dioxide as using fuel oil. (5)

Generating electricity with natural gas will also reduce the amount of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides emitted, thus contributing to public health.

In addition to cleaning up the skies, natural gas from the pipeline will reduce the cost of electricity. Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission reports that generating electricity with natural gas is only 27 percent as costly as generation with fuel oil. (6) Lower energy costs not only benefit residential consumers, but favor the establishment of job-creating industries in Mexico.

In anticipation of gas from the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, a German company has started construction of what will be Mexico’s largest fertilizer plant. It will use natural gas as a raw material.

In an ideal world, both Mexico and the United States would shift to renewable energy with the same intensity that industry shifted to arms production during World War II. (7) However, given political reality, this doesn’t appear to be likely anytime soon in either Mexico or the United States.

Rather, the shift to renewables looks to be a long, drawn-out process, just as the shift from wood to coal and from coal to oil were. (8) In the United States only 5.5 percent of electricity comes from wind and 1.4 percent from solar. (9) Mexico is still further away from zero emissions.

During this protracted process of shifting to renewables, gas from the Trans-Pecos Pipeline will lessen greenhouse-gas emissions—benefiting not only Mexicans but the rest of the Earth’s inhabitants.

1. BP Statistical Review 2016, p. 20.
2. IEA, Mexico’s Energy Outlook, pp. 23-24.
3. Expansión.newsletter, Jan. 16, 2017.
4. Vaclav Smil (2015) Natural Gas: Fuel for the 21st Century, p. 59.
5. La Jornada, May 8, 2016, p. 8.
6. Reforma, Feb. 2, 2016, p. 1 negocios.
7. Bill McKibben discusses this scenario. New Republic, Sept. 2016, pp. 22-31.
8. For a superb graph depicting this transition see Atlantic, Nov. 2015, p. 60.
9. PV Magazine, March 2, 2017.

Author: Philip L. Russell

Russell is an independent author based in Austin, Texas. His writings on Mexico have appeared in publications ranging from the New York Times to Mexico City’s La Jornada. He has also written seven books on Latin America, the last of which is The Essential History of Mexico: from Pre-Conquest to Present (Routledge, 2016).

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3 comments

  1. Respectfully, Mr. Russell’s opinion piece neglects some critical facts, which can be found here:

    http://www.bigbendconservationalliance.org/notcleanburningnaturalgasformexico/

    We know from CFE resources that Mexico plans to convert seven oil-fired systems to combined-cycle, natural gas-fired units, and add five new combined-cycle generation plants.

    There are twenty-two (22) oil-fired generation systems, and based on the CFE’s published plans, that total reduces from twenty-two to fifteen (15) after the completion (in a decade) of the conversion projects. That leaves the remaining fifteen oil-fired units in operation. This is a rough reduction of 30% in the oil-fired segment – recall that represents only 21% of Mexico’s current total generating capacity – reducing that fraction from 21% to about 15% of the total generating capacity, in about a decade.

    With respect to oil-fired (which includes the misleading use of the term “diesel”) generating capacity, it is clear that the impact of additional natural gas capability is relatively small – a reduction of 30% of the nominal 21% component of Mexico’s generating capacity.

    Summarizing to this point, we see that the consortium’s claims are at best wholly specious – with no net reduction in the use of coal, and no significant reduction in the use of fuel-oil generation systems, and discounting the consortium’s wholly false claims with respect to use of wood-fueled systems, the use of natural gas is making no significant contribution to improving air, or environmental quality in Mexico, or the neighboring United States.

    In parallel, the United States, in particular Texas, bears the environmental impacts of this export facility, including demands on scarce water for unconventional extraction, air quality impacts, and so on.

    There is ample evidence that Mexico intends to participate in the global natural gas market as an exporter – via LNG projects, part of a Pemex project known as the Trans-Oceanic Corridor. At least one liquefaction facility is in the planning and pre-construction phase, and plans exist to convert two re-gasification facilities to dual use operation.

    Mexico itself sits atop significant natural gas reserves, on, and offshore. The export of U.S. resources is simply a market shift, to attempt to provide a higher margin, higher profit market to U.S. producers.

  2. In the event the latter comment is somehow unconvincing, here is another source, “straight from the horses mouth,” so to speak:

    http://bigbendnow.com/2017/01/motran-trans-pecos-pipeline-gas-going-to-asia-through-mexican-port-of-topolobampo/

    The projects at Salina Cruz, and Topolobampo are evidentiary, and the “open secret” that this project, and another 20 cross-border natural gas pipelines, between the United States and Mexico (natural gas systems only, excluding crude, condensates, and refined product) that are either in existence, under construction, or in the planning and permitting phases should tell any reasonable person that this is a larger game that what was portrayed in the guest editorial.

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