Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador seems to believe that his country’s energy future lies in looking back towards coal instead of ahead to renewables.
According to recent reporting by the LA Times, López Obrador has all but stopped new renewable projects. He openly mocked wind farms as “fans” that blight the landscape. He also poured money into state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, including $9 billion for construction of a new refinery. Last month, he pushed legislation that requires that the energy grid first take power from state-run plants — fueled in large part by crude oil and coal — before less expensive wind and solar energy.
López Obrador’s attachment to fossil fuels and rejection of greener alternatives at a time when most nations are moving in the opposite direction has dismayed environmentalists. They warn that the path Mexico’s president wants to take them down will make it near impossible for the Central American nation to achieve its emission reduction commitments under the Paris climate agreement.
And the environmentalists are not alone. Area business leaders as well have warned López Obrador that energy costs will rise if he continues to eschew renewables because coal and gas cost about twice as much as wind and solar.
So why his obsession with fossil fuels?
Experts say his policies are rooted less in climate change denialism and more in nationalism and nostalgia. López Obrador grew up in the oil-rich Tabasco state in the decades after President Lázaro Cárdenas seized the assets of foreign energy companies operating in Mexico and nationalized the country’s oil reserves and mineral wealth.
As a popular, López Obrador is playing on Mexico’s proud history as a fossil fuel powerhouse to be reckoned with. But over the years, mismanagement and an aging infrastructure eventually eroded the country’s position as a top oil producer. Still, López Obrador seeks a return to those glory days at the expense of compliance with the Paris Climate Accords. Lisa Viscidi, an energy expert at the U.S.-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue, said the president’s goal is to “return their monopolies” by bringing the energy sector under state control — even if that means promoting dirtier fossil fuels and contributing more carbon emissions.
Mexico produces just 1% of the world’s greenhouse gases. But environmentalists say it’s important that it pulls its weight, in part because it will set an example in the region.
“It does matter what Mexico does,” said Carolina Herrera, a Latin America analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Ironically, López Obrador’s biggest constituency, the working class, may suffer the most from droughts, floods, and other effects of a warming climate.
“The people who López Obrador says he’s looking out for are the ones who are going to be really vulnerable,” Herrera said.
Back to the Future
Lopez Obrador’s attitude about fossil fuels isn’t the only way that he seems hellbent on taking Mexico “back to the future.” When he visited the high-tech central Bajío region in 2019, he chose not to go to a car factory powering the nation’s export-led economy but to a horse-drawn sugarcane mill. After taking power, he torpedoed a partially-built new airport in the capital, he put the presidential jet up for sale, and shunned foreign travel.
The current Mexican president has been described as a man who is tearing down the present to create a future inspired by the past.
“He’s like Rip Van Winkle,” says Enrique Krauze, a Mexican historian, referring to the fictional character who falls asleep for 20 years and reawakens to a vastly changed world. “He comes from the past, and he is stuck in the past.”
The 67-year-old López Obrador “is perhaps the top exponent in Latin America of what I call ‘ideological necrophilia’ — a passionate attraction to ideas and ideologies which have been tried and tested, and failed, an infinite number of times in Mexico and Latin America,” says Moisés Naím, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He is deeply in love with bad ideas.”