Here’s A Fun Read

It’s funnier if it’s not you getting yourself blown up while stealing gasoline

We’re lucky here in the Baja, as we don’t run out of gasoline unless there’s a storm on the Sea of Cortez. Then the barges bringing the fuel over from the mainland can’t hook up with the pipes that extend out into the sea at the gas dock just north of La Paz. You see those big tanks alongside the road to Pichilingue? Those are storage tanks for our gasoline, ready to fill up the tanker trucks that distribute the gas to Pemex stations all over southern Baja.

Dozens of gas pirates skim gasoline off an irrigation ditch near the site of a pipeline spill. These thieves use big sponges to draw up only the gasoline floating on the surface of the water in the ditch.  Pemex workers walking on the left are trying to deal with other aspects of the spill, at this point not arresting the opportunists who don’t seem too worried about the authorities.The only worry we have is can the trucks make it down the highway to Cabo or is that road blocked by storm or fiery crash or some other kind of mayhem? Then, after the fuel has arrived, our only worry is that the electricity stays on at the Pemex station so the gasoline can be pumped out of the ground and into your car. Sound a bit dicey? Not even.

What’s really dicey for the people over on the mainland is the way they need to depend on underground pipes to deliver their fuel to their Pemex station. Lately these pipes have proven to be vulnerable to hackers. People are hacking into the big oil pipelines that are 18 inches to several feet in diameter and buried three and four feet below the surface. Flowing through these arteries is fresh, wholesome,  ready to sell gasoline that powers our cars.  This liquid gold has proven to be irresistible to criminal gangs, many of whom were transporting drugs until they caught on to the easy money stealing and selling gas. Weak penalties for stealing oil and gasoline have exacerbated the problem. In the first eight months of this year, 7.5 million barrels went missing, a rate of about 30,000 52 gallon barrels a day, enough to fill a fleet of more than 100 tanker trucks. Each day.

“It’s not considered a serious crime and as a consequence, the penalties are truly reduced,” Omar Fayad, head of the Senate Commission on Public Security, said in a speech last fall in which he called for prison terms of 25 to 35 years for those involved in major energy theft. His bill is still pending. Fayad said he believes organized crime groups rake off $1 billion a year from energy theft.

The head of Pemex, Emilio Lozoya, has called energy theft one of the worst crimes against the nation because it hijacks revenues that otherwise would go directly into state coffers. “Schools, hospitals and highways won’t be built,” Lozoya sighs.

But Lozoya said prosecutions are difficult even against the few people caught red-handed with what is believed to be stolen gasoline, diesel or crude oil. “If you catch a presumed criminal with tanks of gasoline or diesel, it’s not a trivial matter to prove that he stole it,” Lozoya said. “He can say he got it anywhere.” What, from a gasoline tree? How does that excuse work?

This is a situation that has been steadily worsening in several states. The problem surfaced last October and by January it was a mini-crisis, and by June there were signs it would get worse. By mid-month it did and, according to one report, most gas stations were out of product. Legitimate gas stations had no fuel but the stuff was all over the black market. Nearly 100 gas stations had to close temporarily because they had no fuel.

Pemex released figures in February revealing there were over 4,000 illegal taps last year and thieves —drug runners who have diversified — cost the company more than $1 billion U.S. in lost fuel income.

There has been talk of patrolling the lines and installing new technology that detects taps by pressure changes within the pipes. Another strategy is to send gasoline that is not fully refined and complete the refining process at distribution centers.  That move will make it risky to buy stolen fuel. While the company didn’t specify what steps in the refining process will be left unfinished, it said fuels moved through its pipelines will not be usable in vehicles and industrial plants. “Customers should make sure that the fuel they buy has been delivered from Pemex terminals, and not buy gasoline or diesel from anyone other than gas stations or authorized dealers, given that  it could damage motors,” the company warned.

It appears Pemex will do basic processing before shipping oil to tank farms and distributional terminals it operates. Employees there would then have to add additives that regulate the combustion process before the fuels could be used. “The only thing you could do additionally to the gasoline is to put additives in it” at the tank farms, “but that is a very delicate process,” said industry consultant Guillermo Suarez, a chemical engineer. He predicted the change will lead to quality problems, because “the distribution or storage centres don’t have the technological capacity to do this.”

But the problem only seems to be getting worse, and it’s not only Pemex that is suffering losses when it can no longer meet the demand of gas stations. Aguascalientes newspaper columnist Octavio Díaz García de León said his state and Zacatecas have been paralyzed by the shortages. The situation, he wrote, “is proof that organized crime continues to operate with impunity a lucrative business in which corrupt functionaries of Pemex and other authorities are accomplices.” He also questions the point of energy reform if the state is incapable of guaranteeing the security of its own oil company. And what, asks the writer, are foreign investors expected to do? Will they be permitted to hire mercenaries to protect their interests as they do in Iraq? And does Mexico want to be lumped into the same category as that failed state?

Some doubt the measure will stop the gangs. “If you can just add an aspirin at the end of the process, the narcos can do that, too,” one analyst noted. “When the process of finishing the gasoline is transferred to the terminals, obviously the people who are doing this (stealing fuel), will find out, because they are inside,” Suarez said. “So, very simply, they’ll steal additives and make their own mixture.”

Meanwhile, on the streets of many Mexican cities this week, motorists are being rationed what little fuel there is, and it could be more than a week before those stations are resupplied. ,