A subaquatic ball of fire that proliferated in the Gulf of Mexico Friday is raising questions about the safety of offshore oil and gas development and climate change. Now, the company behind the incident is saying a lightning strike was at the source.
The fire, which emerged in the Campeche Bank near Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula around 5:15 a.m. on July 2 was the result of an open valve in an underwater pipeline, according to Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), Mexico’s state-owned oil and gas developer.
The fire ignited when gas leaking from the pipe, located in one of the company’s most productive offshore oil fields, Ku-Maloob-Zap, migrated from the seabed to the ocean’s surface, Pemex said in a statement Monday. As a thunderstorm surged over the gulf, lightning struck gas that had seeped up to the ocean’s surface, creating a bubbling orb of glowing orange flames—an image that quickly went viral on Friday as broader concern about the implications of the climate crisis mounted.
The depth of the fireball—and the extent of any ecosystem damage it caused—is currently unclear, though most reports cite the fire as existing only at the surface of the ocean, where it had access to oxygen. It took around five hours for emergency crews to douse the flames and close the leaking pipeline valve, extinguishing the fire entirely, Pemex said.
The company plans to investigate the source of the fire, but currently claims no oil was spilled in the gas leak that led to the fireball’s creation. Angel Carrizales, head of Agencia de Seguridad, Energía y Ambiente (ASEA), the federal oil and gas regulator, corroborated this claim on Twitter, quickly drawing criticism from followers who noted that the gas leak and fire would likely have environmental implications nonetheless.
In a statement published Monday, Greenpeace Mexico joined two dozen other environmental groups, including the Mexican Alliance Against Fracking and the Mexican Climate Initiative, in slamming Pemex as a contributor to “ecocide” by the fossil fuel industry. The environmental non-profit said deepwater drilling is “high risk” for workers and marine ecosystems alike, and criticized Pemex for operating allegedly aging infrastructure with decreased performance, including methane leaks.
“All of the above makes Pemex an unsustainable company as much economically as it is socially and environmentally,” the statement said.
The group is calling on the Mexican government and president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (a fervent supporter of energy sovereignty in the state) to ban fracking, halt deepwater extraction and phase out oil and gas infrastructure while investing in renewables.
Pemex has a long history of pipeline spills and accidents; Friday’s spill is the latest of at least three to take place throughout the country this year, CBS News reported Friday. A 2019 Guardian investigation of emissions data found the company to be the ninth highest polluting oil and gas producer in the world.
Greenpeace Mexico Energy and Climate Change Specialist Pablo Ramírez attributes the fire in part to Pemex’s financial standing: The company had billions of dollars in debt at the end of 2020, and neglected repairing its infrastructure out of fiscal concerns. Though the damage this will do to Mexico’s marine ecosystems is not yet known, Ramírez predicts it will be substantial.
“The Gulf of Mexico region is home to several species that are listed as being at serious risk of extinction, such as the hammerhead shark and various types of turtles,” he said. “we are talking about a huge methane leak that triggered a fire that lasted several hours. This will definitely have impacts.”
A request for comment sent to Pemex was not immediately answered.