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A community in Mexico is reeling after the deadliest pipeline explosion in recent memory claimed over a hundred lives and injured dozens more. At the end of last month, a pipeline located in a poverty-stricken region of the State of Hidalgo was sabotaged causing a massive explosion. The pipeline tampering was carried out by a gang of fuel thieves who drilled a series of holes in the hope of stealing fuel. Motivated by the possibility of reselling stolen fuel on the black market, roving gangs have been a thorn in the side of the Mexican energy economy for years. The sabotaged pipeline is owned by the government-controlled oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, also known as Pemex, and connects to the Tula refinery located north of Mexico City.

Illegal pipeline tampering, a dangerous, but lucrative criminal practice has been a persistent problem in Mexico. Historically, however, it was a relatively small issue, and both government authorities and energy companies had largely left the problem unaddressed. Energy companies had gotten used to writing off the thefts as business costs. However, the scope of the problem has worsened dramatically in recent years with fuel thefts rising at a dramatic rate. Last year, there were over 12,500 illegal taps, an increase of 27 times compared with the previous decade. Last year alone, the value of stolen fuel resold on the black market aggregated to over three billion USD.

In response, the new President of Mexico Andres Manual Lopes Obrador has vowed swift justice. The government has implemented a plan of making strategic fuel diversions with the goal of eliminating transport through the most frequently targeted pipelines. However, this approach has manifested a serious downside. Diverting fuel away from certain pipelines means that a portion of the transport infrastructure is effectively underutilized. This means that the remaining portion of the infrastructure must compensate. Unfortunately for energy consumers, the logistics of the governments’ plan have not proceeded smoothly. The strategic underutilization has actually resulted in slower deliveries which has created fuel shortages. The lines at fuel pumps have multiplied in length. The practical effect of the governments’ plan is that the incentive to steal fuel has become stronger than ever.

In addition to the diversionary scheme, the government has deployed 4,000 military personnel to address the problem. The President has also enacted an initiative to move the country away from a pipeline dependent transportation infrastructure. He has vowed to allocate government funding to increase the number of fuel delivery trucks by 25%. Currently, it is too early to tell what the long-term effectiveness of these measures will be.

Part of the tragedy involving the Pemex line is fuel shortage related. The pipeline had actually been shut down as part of the government’s strategy to prevent theft. However, the pipeline had been reactivated mere hours before the tampering. Shortly after criminals breached the pipeline, hundreds of villagers from the nearby town of Tlahuelilpan, flocked to the scene, lured by the prospect of free gasoline in the midst of the shortage. Video taken right before the blast show the crowd of villagers, including whole families, flocking to the breach with containers of various kinds, hoping to collect some of the fuel. The government responded quickly, dispatching military units to control the crowd, but had limited success. Two hours after the breach was made, a spark or flame ignited the pressurized fuel, causing a catastrophic explosion. The resulting fire took four hours to extinguish. Investigators speculate that a spark generated by static electricity of clothing is what ignited the fuel.

The initial blast left 79 dead and 81 injured. In the month since the incident, the death toll has risen to over 130, with more than a dozen still in critical condition. The staggering numbers quickly overwhelmed local emergency services, and many of the injured were transported to Galveston, Texas for treatment. The Pemex blast is the deadliest explosion in recent memory, surpassing the 2010 explosion in San Martin Texmelucan de Labastida, a city in the State of Puebla, which claimed almost 30 lives. The 2010 blast was also caused by pipeline tampering. In the United States, pipelines are actually considered a safer alternative to transporting volatile materials compared to trucks. In addition to being prone to leaks, trucks carry the risk of exposing combustible materials to vehicular collisions. However, the U.S. is largely free from the type of highly organized criminal elements that openly seek to undermine active pipelines in Mexico. What this explosion demonstrates is the extreme damage that a pipeline breach can create, regardless of the cause.

Written by Christopher Chan