Written by Stephanie Eschenbacher
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico’s environmental regulator has no records for state oil company Pemex that reported a methane leak last December in the country’s largest oil field, according to the regulator’s response to a Reuters freedom of information request.
“There are no records” of “a possible accident at the Ku-Maloob-Zaap asset in December 2021,” the organization said in its response to a Reuters request on August 15.
Nine experts consulted by Reuters and all current or former officials with regulatory agencies or the Department of Energy said Pemex is obligated to report such incidents under Mexican law.
These individuals added that reporting such incidents is a legal requirement within ten days.
Reuters could not independently verify whether Pemex had informed the authorities.
Pemex did not respond to requests for comment on the regulator’s disclosures.
ASEA also did not respond to requests for comment on the potential legal breach and its consequences.
The methane leak at the Zaap-C platform, which first appeared on December 8, was detected by researchers led by Itziar Irakulis Loitxate of the Polytechnic University of Valencia.
Their research, published by the European Space Agency (ESA) in June, showed that Pemex released about 40,000 tons of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – over the course of 17 days in December.
The Zaap-C platform is part of the Ku-Maloob-Zaap oilfield group, which produces about 40% of the country’s total oil production.
Pemex in September confirmed the leak in a statement that cited the scientists’ study, but questioned the scale they calculated. The company did not specify the date of the event.
In June, Reuters requested records of all incidents since the regulator’s creation in 2015 that Pemex has reported anywhere in the country and deemed a risk to workers, public health and safety, the environment, oil and gas facilities or production.
Reuters also requested, as part of the same request, the records relating to the Ko Malop Zap incident in December.
The methane leak from the Zaap-C platform was not among the 5,235 incidents that ASEA disclosed to Reuters in its response.
Pemex, the world’s most indebted oil company, has acknowledged in public statements the challenges it faces in maintaining and repairing troubled infrastructure.
Last year, the company confirmed two accidents at Ku-Maloob-Zaap that it attributed to failures in its gas infrastructure. In one accident, five workers were killed and six were injured.
Last month, after Reuters submitted a request for information about the leak in December, Lotxit shared new data with Reuters that showed another methane leak of the same size earlier in August at the same platform.
Pemex has not commented on this leak, which was first detected by satellites on August 5.
Invisible and odorless methane is a much more powerful driver of short-term global warming than carbon dioxide because it traps more heat in the atmosphere.
Mexico, along with about 100 other countries, has committed to reducing methane emissions by 30% by 2030.
Obligation to report
Experts interviewed by Reuters said failure to report the spill — even if it was the smaller 2,224-tonne Pemex said was released — would be a violation of the law because of the risks posed by such accidents.
“It is clear that an event of this magnitude met the criteria (which must be reported),” said Sergio Pimentel, a lawyer and former senior official at Mexico’s hydrocarbon and energy regulator.
Additional provisions of the law, passed in 2018, also set different time frames within which methane leaks must be repaired depending on their size – ranging from 24 hours to several days.
A source at the Energy Department and another at Pemex said the company may try to argue that the accident did not need to be reported under the original operating contract for the old oil field – discovered in 1979.
At the time, the harmful effects of greenhouse gases such as methane were not widely accepted. Reuters was unable to contact Pemex’s lawyer directly.
Experts interviewed by Reuters said that if Pemex was found not to have intentionally reported or repaired a methane leak, it could face a fine and individuals found responsible for wrongdoing could go to jail.
They said Pemex could also be stripped of the right to operate the group of oilfields that produced an average of 647,388 barrels per day in the first half of this year.