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Mexico’s president-elect promises to clean up the environment — and build a new oil refinery

An attendant stands next to a fuel pump at a Pemex gas station in Mexico City in August. (Luis Antonio Rojas/Bloomberg News)

Gloria González considers herself left-leaning and socially minded. She has marched in protests, supported environmental causes and voted three times for President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador — the left-leaning populist and nationalist who overwhelmingly won the July 1 election.

González, 50, doesn’t own a car. But she hopes López Obrador keeps key campaign promises: to freeze the price of gasoline and build an $8 billion refinery.

“When the price of gasoline goes up, the price of food goes up, too. Bus fares go up. The price of everything goes up,” she said. “He wants to build refineries. He wants them to benefit the people [with] a lower price of gasoline.”

López Obrador — who also goes by AMLO, the acronym formed by his initials — campaigned on curtailing crime, corruption and poverty. He also promised to clean up the environment, releasing a campaign document called “Naturamlo,” which pledges to protect water resources, plant 1 million hectares of trees, consult with indigenous communities on development and stop the slayings of environmental defenders.

Mexico’s new president is a populist who railed against the ruling class. But he’s no Trump.

But any environmental agenda intersects with Mexico’s complicated relationship with petroleum. In 1938, the state seized nearly all of the assets of foreign-owned oil companies, effectively nationalizing the industry. Patriotic Mexicans donated everything from the family jewels to chickens to help the government get rid of the foreign companies.

That history has left many Mexicans with a sense that they should benefit from petroleum by paying less at the pump. It has also prompted López Obrador to promise that he will “rescue” the energy sector.

López Obrador, a native of the oil-rich state of Tabasco, has been obsessed for years with the price of gasoline and opposed a 2014 constitutional change that allowed foreign companies to invest in the oil and gas industry.

He compared the change to treason and wrote a letter warning then-ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson that any investment in Mexican oil would be tantamount to “piracy” — although he toned down his rhetoric in the pre-election period.

López Obrador has proposed freezing the prices of gasoline, diesel and electricity for three years, then lowering prices as new infrastructure comes online.

He also proposes building a refinery in Tabasco and increasing production from Mexico’s six underperforming refineries. He sells the plan as a solution to Mexico’s having to import approximately 60 percent of its gasoline — nearly 600,000 barrels per day — from the United States. (The U.S. Gulf Coast refineries are well-equipped to handle heavy, low-quality crude, including some produced in Mexico.)

In a meeting with business leaders in Monterrey on Tuesday, López Obrador said the refinery, which would be built in Dos Bocas in Tabasco, would cost $8 billion and would produce 400,000 barrels of gasoline per day.

Who is AMLO?

The refinery is part of his $9.2 billion investment plan for Mexico’s state-run oil and electricity companies. The investment aims to boost petroleum production, which has fallen 43 percent since peaking in 2004; refurbish neglected refineries operating below capacity; and bolster electricity generation.

López Obrador’s transition team did not respond to requests for an interview. The president-elect has said he will ban hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking, and in the presidential debates he proposed combating climate change by planting 1 million hectares of trees and increasing hydroelectricity production.

His transition team has also pledged to respect Mexico’s international climate commitments and promote the use of renewable energy, according to clean-energy consultants.

Analysts say that increasing Mexico’s refining capacity makes sense after decades of underinvestment by the state petroleum company, Pemex.

Environmentalists express mixed opinions on the incoming administration. Most are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We have some mixed signs,” said Andrés Flores, director of climate change and energy at the World Resources Institute in Mexico. “They’ve announced new refining capacity, investments in oil and gas, and on the other hand, they’re also saying they would comply with the commitments that Mexico made in the Paris [climate change] agreement.”

Outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto passed energy reform early in his administration to boost oil output, attract investment and capi­tal­ize on multinational oil companies’ expertise in exploiting deep-water petroleum.

He sold it to skeptical Mexicans with the promise that they would pay less — only to have worldwide prices for gasoline soar. A “gasolinazo,” or mega-hike, hit consumers in January 2017 as the government loosened its control on prices at the pump, prompting street protests.

Peña Nieto pleaded for calm in a nationwide address, explaining that the taxes on gasoline paid for education and social programs. “What would you have done?” he asked an outraged population, which answered with snarky responses such as “resign” as graft scandals engulfed governors from Peña Nieto’s party.

“We’re paying tax on gasoline that we shouldn’t be paying,” said Rocio Morales, a pawnshop owner who voted for López Obrador. “It’s a lie that this money goes to social programs. If you go to a hospital, there are no medicines there. There are no computers in the schools.”

Mexico’s obsession with gasoline prices started in the 1980s, when hyperinflation was rife, said David Shields, publisher of Energía a Debate, which focuses on Mexican energy issues. “Every time the gasoline price went up, people associated this with inflation and the shortage of products in supermarkets,” Shields said.

The government started setting the price in 1992 to control inflation. Under the scheme, gasoline often cost less in the United States than in Mexico. But when world oil prices soared, Mexico had to subsidize gasoline — to the tune of more than $20 billion in 2008, more than it spent on its flagship anti-poverty program.

The demand for gasoline has also been driven higher by an ­increase in vehicle ownership, which has climbed from 39 percent of Mexico City households having a vehicle in 2000 to 46.5 percent of households in the city in 2010, according to census data. This is the product of a larger middle class, lower prices for vehicles and an expansion of credit, analysts say.

Combating climate change can be a tough issue to promote in a country where owning a car means social mobility and where public transportation is seen as uncomfortable and the conveyance of the poor. “A car is a status symbol and a sign you advanced,” said Emiliano Ruiz Parra, a journalist who has closely covered López Obrador for years. “In a city without decent or dignified public transport . . . everyone wants a car and dreams of having a car.”

Equally challenging for climate advocates is getting the incoming administration to see the shortcomings of building a new fossil-fuel refinery instead of investing more in renewable energy.

“We are in middle of a fast-track change where the world is moving away from fossil fuels — faster than we’d expected,” said Adrián Fernández Bremauntz, director of Iniciativa Climática de México. “The moment in which they reach self-sufficiency in petroleum products, I don’t think they will have total use of this infrastructure, which will take them more than a decade to build.”

The Energy 202: AMLO seeks to rejuvenate Mexico’s Pemex

Marxists, evangelicals, business executives, working-class activists — meet Mexico’s strange new ruling coalition

Why Mexicans chose López Obrador as their new leader, in four charts

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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