Fracking in Santa Ursula, Oaxaca MX: Sacrificing Rural Communities for National Interests

By LisaMarie Betancourt, SFSU, 2017

Natural gas exploration is rising in Mexico, recognized as the 6th most abundant country with extractable shales[1]. A lot of this expansion is happening under the radar of the rural communities that live along some of these sites. In Tuxtepec, Oaxaca a coalition of municipalities backed by the government’s PEMEX began Papaloapan B, a hydrocarbons development project meant to propel the governments expansion of fracking and maintain interests in fossil fuel energy[2].

Alianza Contra Fracking
Mexican Alliance Against Fracking (Read More)

Residents of Santa Ursúla, a rural village found in the greater municipality of San Juan Bautista, Oaxaca are an example of these national efforts unfolding. One activist claim’s that many of the community members aren’t aware of the effects of fracking, and do not have the background to vitally oppose PEMEX’s operations[3]. In this article I will show how the small rural community of Santa Ursula is experiencing the ill effects of nationalized fossil fuel exploration, and how this example follows a trend of rural and/or indigenous communities sacrificed for the national interest.


Nationalized Energy and What It Means for Mexicans on the Ground

Mexico’s PEMEX is a state run and operated gas company[4]. PEMEX is responsible for the exploration, extraction, and commodification of the country’s resources, and uses its authority to promote “the best interest of the nation,” rendering small municipalities sacrificial for these efforts[5]. In recent history, Mexico’s gasoline and fossil fuel energy sources have experienced periods of unaffordable prices causing socioeconomic instability in small communities dependent on the resource[6]. Gas prices in Mexico reflect a nationalized energy company without the means to keep up with the growing demand of fuel.

In seeking other fuel sources domestically, Mexico expands slowly in Oaxaca and Yucatan, failing to disclose the accurate number of natural gas wells in the country while blocking the dispersal of information and possible opposition[7]. This “sacrifice zone,” is one that by economic means would benefit the country’s production of energy and fossil fuels, while harming the people bearing the burden of the environmental degradation associated with fracking.


Fracking threatens already scarce water

Many of the residents rely on subsistence agriculture to sustain life, so threats to soil fertility and water are grave:

  • Fracking requires between 7.5 million- 30 million liters of water per well[8]
  • A field of 10 wells would need between 25 million- 40 million liters of water[9]
  • Leeching of harsh toxics and chemicals contaminates water supply[10]
  • Induced earthquakes can occur from fractured rock[11]
  • Fracking negatively impacts subsistence agriculture[12]
  • Fracking may overwhelmingly impact scarce water supply [13]

This process is unregulated, and lacks transparency[14].


Who is being affected?

The people of Santa Ursula are experiencing an information blackout in part from the national governments failure to disclose both the amount of exploration wells in Mexico, and the effects of hydraulic fracturing. In 2014 Mexico had only disclosed of two exploratory wells, though this number has been challenged by independent researchers claiming it to be closer in the thousands[15].


Demographics of Santa Ursula[16]:

  • 13% of people have visited and graduated secondary school (high school equivalent)
  • 7 total households have computers with internet access
  • 38% of the inhabitants live in indigenous households

Economic processes occurring at the site of Papaloaban B, particularly for rural villages like Santa Ursula, benefit primarily the interests of national industries in Mexico. Stratified income distribution ensures rural populations bear the burden of extraction measures, and do not see the production or the wealth produced by the value of these resources[17]. With civil society lacking the necessary infrastructure and education, capacity of Santa Ursula’s civil society is low.

The marginalization of these rural groups, often of indigenous descent, occurs in their disincorporation from the wealth or energy these extraction efforts produce. As reviewed by the National Commission of Indigenous Development (CDI), the southern states of Oaxaca and Yucatan are attributed as two of the most indigenously populated, unsurprisingly where fracking is expanding at alarming rates[18].

These sacrifice zones are hidden behind the cloak of nationalized energy and, under a government lacking the democratic policies to disperse information, fails to endure checks from civil society.

resource extraction
Known refineries, pipelines, and oil fields, gas processing centers, and petrochemical complexes (Source:
(Source: TexanAzteca)



[1] Comisión Nacional de Hidrocarburos. (2017). Retrieved 18 October 2017, from

[2] Godoy, E. (2015). Fracking Expands Under the Radar on Mexican Lands | Inter Press Service. Retrieved 4 October 2017, from

[3] (Godoy, 2015)

[4] Non-Public 150 – the full list. (2006). Financial Times. Retrieved 3 November 2017, from

[5] (“Comisión Nacional de Hidrocarburos”, 2017)

[6] Heath, H. (2016). Mexico’s Indigenous Population Continues to Face High Rates of Poverty. Panoramas. Retrieved 4 October 2017, from

[7] (Godoy, 2015)

[8] Mexico – Shale & Fracking Tracker. (2016). Retrieved 16 October 2017, from—Fracking-Tracker/Global-Fracking-Resources/Mexico/

[9] Godoy, E. (2013). Mexico Lacks Water to Frack for Shale Gas | Inter Press Service. Retrieved 3 November 2017, from

[10] (Godoy, 2013)

[11] Estevez, D. (2014). Fracking: Could Mexico’s Water Scarcity Render Its Energy Sector Reforms Self-Defeating?. Retrieved 3 November 2017, from

[12] (Godoy, 2015)

[13] (Estevez, 2014)

[14] (Godoy, 2015)

[15] (Godoy, 2015)

[16] Santa Úrsula. (2017). Nuestro Mexico. Retrieved 17 October 2017, from

[17] As Inequality Grows in Mexico, So Does Social Polarization. (2016). Retrieved 4 October 2017, from

[18] Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas. (2017). Retrieved 18 October 2017, from


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