Mexican Oil Spill Accentuates Automation Needs

On Dec. 22, 2004, the valve system failed on a pipeline pumping station near the Mexican city of Coatzacoalcos, located in the state of Veracruz—a vast oil region in southern Mexico.

The misfortune gave way to a fire, triggering the alert system to stop the nearby pumping station. Due to reasons still not clear, the pumping station did not stop on time and the resulting pressure buildup cracked the pipeline.

The resulting leak flooded the Coatzacoalcos river, one of the most important waterways of southern Mexico. Officials of Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX, estimated the amount of the spill at 1,300 gallons, but some independent environmental protection groups size the oil spill at close to 6,600 gallons, when looking at the evident pollution of flora and fauna in the area. Whatever the amount of the spill, the accident has helped draw attention to what looks like a major opportunity for automation vendors in providing equipment aimed at safer operations of the PEMEX system.

The size of the PEMEX system is significant. The delinquent pumping station is part of the pipeline network that feeds four of the most important refineries in the country. The broken pipeline is 30 inches in diameter. Stretching for 300 miles,the pipeline is sized to deliver 360,000 barrels a day. In total, PEMEX operates close to 33,600 miles of pipeline carrying crude oil, natural gas, processed and unprocessed gases, gasoline, diesel and other refined products. In addition, there are some 1,250 miles of pipelines in the marine platform areas.

The importance of pipeline systems is such that Instituto Mexicano del Petroleo (Mexican Petroleum Institute, or IMP for short—a PEMEX institution devoted to research and technology—formalized an alliance with both the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (National Autonomous University of Mexico, and the Battelle Memorial Institute (, giving birth to the Centro de Excelencia en Ductos (Pipeline Excellence Center, or CED for short. This institution is a simulation laboratory on a real scale, which will allow the evaluation of current technologies and the creation of programs in the field of research and technology development, service and training, as required for inspection, evaluation, maintenance and repair of PEMEX pipelines.

Half obsolete

Fueled by the recent mishap, the environmental group Greenpeace Mexico stated that, based on an analysis carried out by IMP, more than 15,500 miles of PEMEX pipelines have already exceeded their useful operational life expectancy. Put another way, the physical condition of close to 50 percent of the 33,600 miles of pipeline that spread all over the country is obsolete, mainly because of the evident corrosion levels.

Juan Bueno Tenorio, director of PEMEX refining operations, the area responsible for the operation of the broken pipeline, explained recently that an investment of U.S. $1.3 billion is required just in the area he directs, to enhance the reliability of the pipeline system. Such an investment would include pressure monitoring systems based on supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems with an estimated value of $380 million. He also indicated that investments required for maintenance of the whole network of PEMEX pipeline on a yearly basis lies in the neighborhood of $3 billion.

Given these kinds of numbers, it looks as though PEMEX may be primed for a big boost in automation spending. Even though the reliable journal “Petroleum Intelligence Weekly” recently lowered its ranking of PEMEX from 7 to 9 among the world’s best companies in the oil business, PEMEX continues to be one of the main engines of the Mexican economy. What’s more, PEMEX is a huge, compulsive consumer of automation and control products in Mexico.

Modesto Vazquez,, is executive editor for “InTech Mexico Automatizacion” and a member of the Editorial Board for “Manufactura” magazine, the largest industrial magazine in Mexico. His exclusive news coverage of automation applications in Latin America will appear regularly in Automation World.

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