Saturday, January 26, 2019

Is it time to worry about San Miguel's air quality?

Retired people have a lot of time and tend to compare worries with one another, mostly so they can worry some more. Among the local retirees, I'd say healthcare is at the top of the worry list, as in who-died-from-what, and who is the best doctor for whatever ails someone. That's followed by money concerns, revolving around San Miguel's rapidly rising cost of living.

Then, among San Miguel left-tilting groupies—that is, the majority of the expat population—comes politics: When is the guy with fly-away orange hair going to be deposed/impeached/forced to resign, before he completely ruins the country and possibly disrupts the southerly flow of Social Security checks?

These topics are endlessly recycled, usually over lunch or dinner, until, eh, conversations get pretty boring.
But a week ago I received an email from a friend who is concerned about air pollution in San Miguel, something that had never crossed my mind, and which I found difficult to believe. There might be something to this new worry.

Is the air a little dirty or is it just my imagination?
 A weather map forwarded by this friend showed that on Jan. 22, the air in San Miguel was rated as "unhealthy". As I write this, on Saturday, July 26 at 2:15 p.m., another map, which uses a six-tier Air Quality Index that goes from "Good" to "Hazardous", San Miguel's air quality is ranked as "Moderate," right below "Good," for a pollution score of 53. Take heart, though, that at that moment the air quality index in Kabul, Afghanistan, was 287, which must feel like sucking on the tailpipe of a '57 Chevy Impala.

And yet, compared to bigger and closer cities, the air quality in San Miguel is not that great. On the AirVisual app, today San Miguel's comparative air quality is 43; Mexico City 63; San Antonio, Texas 30; Chicago 16, Houston, 28; and nearby Querétaro, 30. In this arbitrary grouping, only Mexico City's air was worse than San Miguel's. One could factor in all sorts of variables, including the specific pollutants in the air, but it still surprised me that Houston and Chicago had cleaner air than San Miguel.

What could account for San Miguel's relatively dirty air? At this time of the year, when it's bone- dry and windy, airborne dust could be to blame, along with smoke from constant brush fires rolling over the countryside, accelerated by the wind. Or dirtier air could be blowing in from more polluted neighbors, though Querétaro, a much larger and industrialized city, scored only a 30. Another possibility is that San Miguel's topography, sitting in a valley and surrounded by mountains, might tend to trap dirty air.

My guess, and it's only that, is that the frenzy of new construction and truck traffic in San Miguel might be a factor, as is the increased traffic of all kinds, caused by growing tourism. On weekends, the town's Centro is choking with out-of-state cars and tour buses, mostly idling or just crawling along.

I'd heard complaints about San Miguel's air before but didn't pay much attention, primarily because it didn't seem to affect my nose or lungs. More obnoxious, particularly to my eyes, are the fumes from the ubiquitous gas-fired, unvented fireplaces used for heating here. But looking at some of these numbers, I'm starting to think all the local worrywarts may be on to something, though I can't imagine what the solution might be. 

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Local gas shortages just a symptom of what ails Mexico's state-owned oil monopoly

When Stew and I left for San Antonio about ten days ago, trepidation was in the air and in our minds. San Miguel's gringo babblesphere buzzed with reports of severe gas shortages throughout Mexico, heightened security problems on the highways, and delays of up to twelve hours at border crossings in Laredo, the latter caused by the shutdown of parts of the U.S. government.

Accordingly, we took with us a five-gallon container of gasoline in our pickup, and Stew periodically checked on the internet for waiting times at the various border crossings, to determine which to avoid. Oh, so much fussing and low-budget drama. If we had worn pith helmets, you could have sworn we were off to the jungle to hunt elephants.

In fact, nothing happened—to us.

Yet the death of 79 people, and just as many injured, as a result of gasoline pipeline explosion north of Mexico City Friday night, illustrates the truly huge problems Mexico's new president faces trying to deal with massive corruption in the country's government-owned fuel production and distribution system. Gas shortages in localities like San Miguel are but an inconvenience at worst.

Mexican Customs Tip #1:
Instant Tapioca? No problema.
Going up to San Antonio, traffic was light except for the usual caravans of semitrailers. And 90 minutes outside of San Miguel, a short piece past Dolores Hidalgo, there was no apparent gasoline shortage at all.

At the Colombia Bridge crossing, west of Laredo/Nuevo Laredo, there was no waiting. Zero. The U.S. border patrol guy may have been relieved that someone finally showed up. If there were highway bandits lurking about, somehow we missed them, or they us.

On our return Thursday, though, we faced some drama of our own making when Mexican customs officers spotted two gasoline containers that we had filled at a truck stop just before reaching the border. According to some subchapter of Mexico's immigration and customs regulations, the importation of fuel is strictly prohibited, even by clueless fools like us.

So we were told to drive our pickup, loaded to the gills with stuff, to an concrete enclosure so it could be X- rayed for any other contraband. As we watched from a safe distance, red and yellow lights blinked, buzzers buzzed ominously, and after this light and sound show, we were told to drive over to yet another area for additional inspections.
Mexican Customs Tip #2:
A piece of a cactus plant from
San Antonio, Texas? Maybe 
a problema
Best to hide 
in your dirty l
aundry. 

What set off all the lights and alarms? The chainsaw we carried for a friend? The dish rack from Bed, Bath and Beyond? Two small boxes of instant tapioca pudding for another friend? A piece of an odd-looking cactus I'd found along a highway in San Antonio? Something that was planted, possibly a trap?
It was those damn gas containers: We had to get rid of them. I put on my best impression of a befuddled gringo pendejo—which friends assure me I do very well, sometimes without even trying—to try to soften up the Mexican customs and immigrations guy. I offered to put the gasoline in his truck, if I could keep the containers, which cost me about $20 each. I mentioned the dire gas shortage in the heart of the Mexican republic.

After a while, the officer went to confer with three or four other colleagues nearby, and then to the squat cinder block customs and immigration police office. I sensed a mordida beginning to circle over my head, but I was wrong. The officer said that, given the fuel shortage, I could keep my gasoline. I shook the guy's hand, thanked him for his comprehension, and rushed off in my pickup, as if I desperately needed a restroom, which, after all the nerve-wracking back and forth, I actually did.

Mexican Customs Tip #3: Plastic
containers filled with gasoline?
BIG problema! If discovered, be
prepared to beg for mercy
From there, and after a overnight stop in Saltillo, the rest of the trip was boring, tiring and uneventful as usual. The bypass around Monterrey was thick with the usual Beijing-on-a-bad-day smog.

But the valley and majestic mountains a half hour south of Saltillo put on special show. The gray, gravid clouds seemed ready to turn the thin drizzle into a serious rain.

Instead, a brilliant hole opened in the clouds and sun rays pierced through and shone on the misty landscape, creating a dramatic spectacle of lights and shadows, waiting to be photographed. It was as if God had cracked open a window in the sky to admire this gorgeous piece of Mexican real estate.

Stopping periodically to top off the gas tank, and buy some doughnuts, we found no sign of a gas shortage until we reached San Miguel on Friday, where most gas stations were indeed closed and one open BP station was mobbed by both cars and people on foot carrying empty plastic containers.

I then began poking around the internet and Mexican newspapers to try piece together an understanding of Mexico's problem with its gasoline distribution system: How could one of the largest oil producers in the world have a gasoline shortage?

The short answer is decades of epic corruption that costs Petróleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, billions of dollars in losses every year. When it was founded in 1938, Pemex was supposed to be a ready source of revenue for the government, obviating the need for comparable personal and business taxes.

Instead Pemex has become a money-losing boondoggle that has failed to make the necessary investment in exploration of new sources and construction of gasoline refineries. The gas shortages in San Miguel indeed are but a minor symptom of the problem.

In a damn-the-torpedoes campaign to clean up Pemex, and particularly the theft of billions of dollars' worth of gasoline flowing through pipelines, Mexico's new president has shut down some pipelines with the most egregious theft problems, and is attempting to instead distribute the gasoline to stations in tanker trucks. The strategy hasn't worked out well so far. There are not enough trucks, and over-the-road driving is not as efficient a delivery system as pipelines.

Never mind tapping the gasoline pipelines. Let's hijack fuel
trucks instead. 
Apparently, pipelines traversing our state of Guanajuato are the most affected, and hence San Miguel, Celaya, Guanajuato, and also parts of the state of Mexico, are experiencing the most serious gas shortages, whereas in other areas we drove through, such as Coahuila, Nuevo León or San Luis Potosí there seemed to be enough gasoline.

Pipelines, most of which are buried, are just the tip of the problem. In the last two weeks, gas thieves have hijacked two tanker trucks in nearby Celaya and there are reports of siphoning of gas from cars at some of the city's parking lots.

One might wonder how do thieves manage to rapidly fence tens of thousands of liters of gasoline stolen from tanker trucks, and the answer also is easy: Some station owners are in cahoots with the hijackers, and pay a deeply discounted price for gasoline, thus doubling or tripling their profits. Everyone's happy—except the hapless consumers.

Friday night, a horrendous explosion killed 79 bystanders near a pipeline near Mexico City that had been tapped by thieves. The geyser of gasoline somehow had caught on fire.

As of Sunday morning, most gas stations in San Miguel seemed to be functioning normally, with no signs of lines or waiting. That blip of a crisis may be over.

But tackling Pemex' protean problems of inefficiency, corruption, security, and failure to invest in new refining facilities, seem like a task insurmountable for any human being, including the new Mexican president, who has vowed to continue his anti-theft campaign even after Friday night's horrible accident.

Wish him luck.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

When the male ego clouds the judgment of political leaders

Crossing the border from Mexico to the U.S., about a week ago, we found each country facing crises caused in large part by the male bravado and arrogance of its leader.

When Donald Trump, in 2015, announced what at the time seemed like a hopeless bid for the presidency, he vowed to build a concrete wall hundreds of miles long to stem a supposed wave of Mexican rapists and assorted criminals from sneaking into the U.S. through its southern border and, moreover, make Mexico pay for this pharaonic undertaking.

From there, Trump's anti-immigration stance and promise to build the Wall became a cornerstone of his campaign and presidency—one that neither his hard-core supporters nor his cheerleaders at Fox News will let him forget—even though it was an absurd solution to a non-existent crisis.

Here comes Da' Man. (NYT)
So now the country is mired in a real crisis that has shut down significant parts of the federal government, leaving hundreds of thousands of civil servants without a paycheck, and citizens without essential government services.

And all because Trump would not, could not, quietly let his fantasy Wall fade into oblivion.

As House Speak Nancy Pelosi and New York Times columnist have noted, the Wall has become a symbol of Trump's manhood, something no one should dare question or impugn.

"...[I]t’s not really a wall that Trump is after, if indeed it ever was," Bruni wrote in a recent column. "It’s a victory for victory’s sake. It’s a show of his might. It’s proof of his potency."

In Mexico we have a similar show of bluster by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who assumed power just six weeks ago, though fortunately for us who live there, he is not nearly as vile or buffoonish as Trump. In fact, López Obrador seems to be almost ostentatiously modest, in dress and style, compared to the gilded excess of Trump and his gang.  

But AMLO, as he is popularly called, pinned his campaign on fighting corruption with bold, decisive strokes, and so he began by fighting it at Pemex, the government-owned behemoth that owns and controls oil production in Mexico. 

At the heart of the problem is the theft of fuel, about three billion dollars worth annually, by drug cartels, and enterprising individuals both outside and inside Pemex. 

(For a vivid depiction of the cartel-Pemex corruption axis, I refer you to an article in Rolling Stone cited by Jennifer Rose, one of this blog's readers: https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/drug-war-mexico-gas-oil-cartel-717563/)

AMLO's initial shot, dramatic but ill-conceived, almost quixotic, was to divert some gasoline deliveries from the pipelines to trucks and train tanker cars. But lack of enough alternate delivery capacity has led to widespread gasoline shortages, and large numbers of stations throughout ten states closed.  

For AMLO or anyone in Mexico to pretend they can root corruption is as far-fetched as someone promising to repeal the laws of gravity in a few quick steps. It's a perennial promise made by every incoming president that perhaps López Obrador should have approached with humility and consultation.

At this juncture, both men seem caught in their own bluster, unlikely to back off and admit they made a mistake that needs reconsideration. 

So tomorrow we're going to Home Depot in San Antonio to pick up a second plastic gas can to bring with us on the trip back to Mexico on Thursday, just in case. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Gas shortages in Mexico fuel dozens of theories

2019 greeted us with a shortage of gasoline, resulting in four- and five-block-long lines at the few stations still operating, and conflicting explanations from newly-elected Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, various newspapers and my dentist Dr. Jesús Herrera. 

A couple of consumers I spoke with, standing stoically in line for an hour or more to fill two or three plastic containers, just rolled their eyes and said "who the hell knows" and "the government screwed up." 


Get in line and we'll be with you whenever.
If the yellow-jacketed protesters in Paris recently screamed, fought with the police and set things on fire over rising fuel prices, here the citoyens just wait quietly in their cars and motorcycles, or stand in line, seemingly unperturbed by the week-long shortages of fuel, and the lack of a logical explanation for the contretemps. 

Instead, if there's anything Mexicans have mastered is waiting in line for everything, at the phone or cable company, government offices, banks and now gas stations. At one BP station on the way out of town, there were even a couple of police vehicles patiently waiting in line, along with everyone else. 

Shortly after taking office, López Obrador vowed to combat theft of fuel from government pipelines, admittedly an enormous problem in Mexico

It's not just a matter of individuals ripping off a few gallons of gas to make a few pesos on the side, but the work of organized gangs, some connected with the drug cartels, sometimes in cahoots with employees of the government-owned oil company Pemex—or any or all of the above. Last year Pemex lost an estimated US$3.4 billion-worth of gasoline to fuel thieves, known as huachicoleros

What, me worry?
My dentist, Dr. Herrera, while drilling one of my molars three weeks ago, put most of the blame on Pemex employees. "The bandits who tap pipelines don't drill using small power drills from Home Depot," he said angrily. "These are inside jobs tolerated by Pemex and the government." My dentist also doesn't have any use for López Obrador or anything he does or might do. 

You may rinse now. 

According to some newspapers, López Obrador's plan, announced on Dec. 27, to combat fuel theft by moving the gasoline by over-the-road tanker trucks— thus bypassing some of the most affected pipelines—has backfired by creating "logistical problems in the delivery system." 

I'd say. A few weeks ago, Stew and I witnessed a caravan of perhaps a dozen Pemex tanker trucks, lumbering through the nearby town of Celaya, guarded by at least half as many army vehicles with heavily armed personnel. It was an impressive show of force and security, but it didn't look like a particularly efficient way to move fuel from the refineries to the gas stations. 

The López Obrador-friendly newspaper La Jornada cited such "logistical problems" for the snafu at the gas stations in nine states, including our own Guanajuato. The government insists the issues are not lack of fuel, or escasez, or price fixing or speculation, but delivery problems, or desabastecimiento. Ah, so.

The plan by Stew and me to drive to San Antonio tomorrow morning thus has been complicated a bit, by potential gasoline shortages along the way. We might take a five-gallon gasoline container just in case. 

Then there are reported delays of up to 12 hours at the Laredo border crossings, caused by the closure of some U.S. government operations, as President Trump insists on spending $5.6 billion on The Wall along the border with Mexico, supposedly to prevent terrorists, narco-traffickers, murderers, jaywalkers, rapists and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of other brown-skinned ne'er-do-wells from getting across. 

It should be a challenging drive, now complicated immensely by governments on both sides of the border led by idiots.