Pipeline Explosion in Mexico: Theft Is a Global Issue

More than 90 people have died in a pipeline explosion in Mexico. The devastating catastrophe is attributed to organized gasoline theft – something that occurs dozens of times daily in Mexico. Last year alone, the state-owned oil corporation Pemex lost 2.7 billion US dollars due to theft. How can the consequences of pipeline damage be minimized?

On Friday January 19, 2019, more than 90 people were killed and numerous were others injured when the Tuxpan-Tula pipeline exploded 85 kilometers north of Mexico City. According to a statement from the state-owned oil company Pemex, gasoline thieves illegally tapped into the pipeline. The reason why the explosion occurred is currently being investigated. Unfortunately, such incidents of theft are commonplace in Mexico. Pemex recorded more than 12,500 cases of gasoline theft between January and October 2018 alone. This equates to one every 30 minutes.

Etellekt risk consultants have been investigating the situation in Mexico for years. According to the company, the nation loses around 60,000 barrels of fuel per day as a result of organized theft. An incredibly well-networked gasoline cartel has the country under its control,  reports the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal among others. Now, the government is reacting – causing discontent amongst its citizens. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador ordered that the Pemex pipelines be shut down and the fuel be transported by trucks. However, the 5,000 transportation vehicles allocated were not nearly enough to complete to task. Nationwide, queues are forming at gas stations where waiting for hours has become the norm.

Source: Daily Mail

Mexico: An Extreme Example of a Global Problem

The situation in Mexico is particularly precarious – this was not an isolated incident. Theft is one of the biggest problems for pipeline operators. Ernst & Young reports that it accounts for annual global losses of 133 billion US dollars in a study. Since serious accidents are fortunately uncommon, few of them become public knowledge.

These types of thefts are difficult to prevent. But operators can minimize the consequences that follow. “The biggest problem is not the theft itself,” explains Sergej Arent, Director of Applications at safety specialist HIMA. “The most dangerous leaks are the ones that occur when a pipeline has been drilled.” Although serious accidents, such as the one in Mexico, are rare, the risks pose threat not only to people but also the environment. What’s more, the operator is usually liable for the damage.

“Pipeline leaks are often only resolved after many hours or even days. Until then, gasoline or oil continues to leak into the ground.”
Sergej Arent,
Director of Applications, HIMA

Leak Detection Alone Isn’t Enough

In order to be able to react quickly, operators use leak detection systems. The systems detect when there is a drop in pressure in the pipeline. This could be due to a leak – but can also be caused by numerous other factors. Pipeline technicians are frequently flooded with false alarms. It isn’t always possible to react sufficiently. This was also the case with the Tuxpan-Tula pipeline. According to the Mexican safety minister, Pemex knew about the leak several hours before the explosion. However, it was not considered significant enough to require action.

Similar situations have occurred numerous times in the past. Many countries have consequently tightened their laws in recent years. For example, the California Assembly Bill 864, passed in 2015, calls for a combination of leak detection and safety systems, especially in ecologically sensitive areas. This enables an automated shutdown of affected pipeline sections in the event of a dangerous situation.

Fuel theft is one of the biggest challenges for pipeline operators.

It is clear that technology alone won’t solve Mexico’s crime problem. It is a complex issue and too woven into the country’s fabric of society for this to happen. Bribery and extortion of politicians are commonplace, reports the New York Times and others. The media also reports that population sometimes views the gasoline mafia as running a “Robin Hood initiative” that provides low earners with affordable fuel.

In other parts of the world, the situation is more moderate. Pipeline operators have greater influence over how they deal with risks. They can take responsibility – not only to ensure their financial stability with higher safety standards, but above all to protect people and the environment from disasters.