If you’ve been on social media lately, you’ve likely seen the striking image of a massive, hellish oil fire burning on the surface of the ocean. The fire began on July 2 as the result of a pipeline leak in the Ku-Maloob-Zaap (KMZ) offshore oil field in the Gulf of Mexico before being extinguished over 17 hours later. The KMZ field has been the major producer of Mexico’s crude oil since 2009, contributing to 46% of its national production, according to a column in the online Mexican news magazine Gatopardo.
Water catching fire is a horrifying image regardless of context, but historic precedent shows that kind of image motivating massive environmental action. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio was notoriously polluted for several decades from oil slicks and general industrial pollution from the steel industry to the point that it caught fire multiple times.
These fires were barely thought of as a major environmental concern until one fire in 1969. That fire was covered by Time, albeit using a picture of another Cuyahoga River fire in 1952, and finally woke people up to a major urban environmental issue. The reaction toward this news in the national press eventually led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Water Act during the Nixon administration.
Unfortunately, rather than ask what could be done to prevent more situations like the KMZ fire from happening again, the loudest voices of the conversation just used this tragedy as an opportunity to platform their politics.
Big-name politicians gave their snarky comebacks against Exxon and in favor of big government action. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted out “Shout out to all the legislators going out on dinner dates with Exxon lobbyists so they can say a Green New Deal is too expensive,” while the Democratic governor of California, Gavin Newsom, tweeted, “The ocean is literally on fire. But yeah, sure—we can’t afford climate action.”
Many of the most popular posts from other Twitter users were quick to pin the blame on unregulated capitalism as the culprit of the fire.
Some made fun of the image of the ships’ extinguishers failing to physically reach the fire as a metaphorical meme about ineffective climate action. Left-wing political cartoonist Eli Valley tweeted a portrait he made of President Joe Biden in one of those aforementioned boats near the massive fire saying “Exxon told me this was fine.” The joke in this cartoon references not only the famous fire, but also a concurrent news story involving Exxon’s influence on Biden’s infrastructure package.
The problem with these memes and tweets blaming capitalists and capitalism for the fire is that the pipeline resulting in the fire wasn’t owned by Exxon or any other private oil company. The pipeline belonged to a state-owned Mexican oil company named Petróleos Mexicanos, better known as Pemex.
Pemex nationalized in 1938 as a retaliation against foreign business, effectively serving as an oil monopoly for the country and the opposite of free market capitalism. As a result, its history as a nationalized company has turned Pemex into a near folk symbol for Mexico, one that’s prone to protectionism and populism.
The current left-wing populist government under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (ALMO) has been happy to keep an oil-drilling future in mind, under the guise of “saving” Pemex from privatization. AMLO is far from being a neoliberal capitalist, and yet, independent of his politics, his energy policies are incredibly fossil fuel-focused.
Many of the current government’s policies are less about thinking about a future without oil and more about a future of protectionist oil. Limiting oil extraction, for instance, is a policy put in place to satisfy local demand and local demand only. This policy works along with putting price controls on oil and effectively ending exports with other countries, according to El Economista. It’s clear that the state control of the oil industry isn’t leading to a green future—it’s staying stuck in a red past.
Some environmentalists have suggested nationalizing oil companies to protect workers from economic crashes and to slow down extraction. The Sunrise Movement, a progressive environmentalist activist group, has explicitly called for a nationalization path in the past as a way to more easily get off fossil fuels.
Looking at how Pemex functions, would this actually work to fix the supposed ills of capitalism and be more environmentally friendly? More importantly, will these proponents continue to ignore the instances when these same nationalized oil companies light the ocean on fire?
Misinformation and obscuring the truth when it comes to the environment is nothing new; as previously mentioned, the famous image of Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 was of an earlier fire. However, in the age of social media, it’s taken a decidedly partisan bent. The question about what to do about one specific pipeline fire turns into an interrogation of what politics you support, and the original question remains unanswered.
Solving climate change requires honesty and introspection, not partisanship or politics. Let’s aim to learn from this story and not repeat these mistakes.