Offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico commenced in the 1930s. As with any oil rig, problems arose on the Sedco 135. The first iconic oil spill in the Gulf known as the Ixtoc I, released nearly 30,000 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf (LA Times, July 16, 1979). The Ixtoc I was ran by PEMEX, the national petroleum company of Mexico. However, the rig was owned by Sedco, a company with ties to Texas government officials (Tomasek, p.4, 1981).
This in of itself led to liability problems with pointing fingers at who was responsible for this disaster.
Better known as the Ixtoc Blowout, this disaster brought upon significant issues which included detriment to wildlife populations, heated political policy debates, and rising tensions between the United States and Mexico. Furthermore, this disaster became the largest spillage of oil into the ocean during the entirety of the 20th century (LA times, July 16, 1979). On the surface, the Ixtoc devastation directly affected hundreds of miles of sand beach shorelines such as South Padre Island and devastated wildlife such as the shrimp and sea turtle populations, but upon deeper examination, the Ixtoc Blowout also altered US relations with Mexico and Texas politics.
On June 23rd, 1979, the Sedco 135 drill rig suffered a blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. The blowout spewed oil at a whopping rate of 30,000 barrels a day, by far the largest oil spill ever at the time (LA Times, July 16, 1979). As the oil spewed continuously, the public immediately turned their attention towards the possibility of damages not only in Mexico, but in Texas, over 500 miles away.
The worst was assumed when it came to damage to the ecosystem. Tourism, a $40 million industry was basically the only industry on South Padre Island. According to Ralph Thompson, Mayor of South Padre Island in 1979, “If that [tourist industry] goes, then we have nothing.” Even though August is typically the peak month, cancellations begun piling up at some hotels even though the oil had no effect on Texas beaches yet in August of 1979(Wall Street Journal, August 9, 1979). Many of these cancellations were strictly due to people taking precautions.
Sea turtles hatching was a major concern to scientists. On the beach of Rancho Nuevo, 350 miles away from the oil spill, scientists worried about the safety of a waning species: The Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle (LA times, July 31, 1979). These turtles spend their entire life in the Gulf so when accidents occur in the Gulf, they are trapped with nowhere to go (Platt, 2016). July and August are prime breeding times for these sea turtles, yet the beaches were lined with oil slicks in 1979. Scientists feared these newly born turtles would hatch on the beach and make their way towards the ocean, only to be asphyxiated or poisoned by the crude oil (LA Times, July 31, 1979). Using skimmers to skim the oil off the ocean surface was one measure taken to prevent oil from reaching the turtles. These turtles were abundant before the disaster. However, turtle numbers dipped under 1000 after the Ixtoc Blowout (Vargas, 2010).
Many sea turtles were airlifted to other parts of the Gulf after the Ixtoc Blowout. One happened to be rehomed into an area that was also affected by the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2008. Over time, the number of sea turtles has made its return. In fact, before the Deepwater Horizon incident, the numbers of Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles were higher than ever before (Vargas, 2010). One major improvement over time is the surgical procedures that these turtles have access too. During Deepwater Horizon, at least 67 turtles received treatment from damage caused by oil in 2008 compared to zero during the Ixtoc Blowout (Platt, 2016). However, even after time has passed, these turtles are still reliant on the resources that the Gulf provides, so the effect on the turtles during Deepwater Horizon was still just as devastating as during Ixtoc Blowout.
Industries that were economically affected include the fishing and shrimping industry. Texas shrimp was a $150 million-dollar industry in 1979. Although the accounts vary, some believe that the floating barriers kept oil out of Laguna Madre, one of the prime breeding grounds for shrimp. However, others believe that because that as the crude oil floats to the surface, volatile elements evaporate into the air, leaving heavy residue. This nasty residue then floats to the ocean floor, where the shrimp may consume the residue (LA Times, July 16, 1979). Some shrimp fisherman’s businesses were greatly affected soon after the spill. Less than three months after the blowout, shrimp production was down 100 tons (LA Times, July 16, 1979)!
Even worse, shrimp fisherman were forbidden to enter shrimp breeding grounds without explanation by the Mexican government in July of 1979. In Mexico, the same story could be seen but in terms of fish. ‘The amount of fish to catch was never the same as before the spill,’ says Pablo Bonastre, a veteran fisherman from Champton in Campeche. All of this led to commercial fisherman filing a lawsuit against SEDCO for $155 million (New York Times, September 23, 1979). Over time, although many say the fishing industry has never been the same, Luis Soto, a deep-sea biologist who followed the fish and shrimp population off Mexico closely, found to his surprise that for most species the numbers had returned to normal within two years (Garvin, 2010). The catastrophic extremes that people imagined really only lasted for a few months.
Relations between Mexico and the United States were undoubtedly altered by the events following the Ixtoc disaster. The State Department was criticized for two major decisions regarding relations with Mexico and protecting Texas citizens. One conflict of interest that lied within the State Department included maintaining a positive relationship with Mexico while protecting citizens of Texas that were harmed by the Ixtoc blowout. During deliberations, the US Department of State was adamant in pushing Mexico & PEMEX for financial responsibility of damages done to Texans in fear of retaliation by Mexico to cutting the necessary supply of oil to the US (Tomasek, p.6, 1981). However, Texas Attorney General Mark White claimed, “If the Federal government will not assist us in obtaining compensation from the responsible parties, then I believe the Federal government should provide compensation” (Ixtoc Hearings 1).
He further explained that as Texas Attorney General, it was his job to protect the rights of his citizens. White even threatened to use the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act if the people of Texas were not compensated. At one point, seizing PEMEX’s assets in the United States was even a discussed solution. However, that would’ve likely resulted in a crisis between the two countries. All this occurred after Mexico claimed they would not be accepting any responsibility for the damages done by the Ixtoc Blowout on August 24th, 1979. Mexico suggested that the United States never took responsibility for its damages due to industrial waste on multiple occasions such as waste pouring into the Mississippi, lead fallout from El Paso smelters, and salinity of the Colorado river (Hearings, September 8, 1979).
Legal issues in the form of lawsuits surrounded all companies with ties to the Ixtoc blowout. On October 18th, 1979, Mark White filed a lawsuit against Sedco, instead of PEMEX. This was one way White felt that he could help Texans be recompensed while still following orders from the State Department (Hearings, September 8, 1979). Soon after, The US Justice Department filed a similar suit against Sedco, for $6 million dollars (Hearings, September 8, 1979). These lawsuits claimed liability and damages occurring to business losses that were affected by the oil spill. However, many speculated that White filed the lawsuit with the intent of attacking Texas governor Bill Clements, in hopes of improving White’s own chance of becoming governor the following term.
Another criticism of the State Department was for its lack of pressure on Mexico to provide accurate information. Multiple sources vocalized their opinions on a lack of effort or skill towards Mexican authorities. Mr. Mohm of Norway claimed, “Mexico was not doing enough,” and “It would’ve taken half the time if the spill was anywhere else” (Wall Street Journal, September 4, 1979). Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggested that PEMEX didn’t have the resources to handle a disaster this size as they even claimed PEMEX didn’t know how to use the technology like booms and skimmers given to them (Tomasek p.4, 1981). The US Department of Interior suggested that Mexico’s pride prevented it from letting the United States get this matter under control quicker. Eventually, a suit was settled for $2 million to be paid by Sedco (Washington Post, March 3, 1983). PEMEX and Mexico were never ordered to pay for any damages. All in all, tensions were high during the Ixtoc Blowout, but it never had an adverse impact on the relations between the two countries after the fact.
Today, oil drilling is still occurring in the Gulf. However, technology has improved to lessen the severity and impact of oil spills. Just like before, Mexico was slow to respond during the Deepwater Horizon (Mexico made pact, 2018). To conclude, technology in the drilling industry has changed immensely over time allowing deeper drilling wells and quicker processes. But, the steps and safety procedures haven’t changed much, which causes accidents to still occur due to human error. However, this human error is not enough to overthrow the resiliency of nature’s ability to recover. Of course, both incidents could have been prevented but in this case, history does repeat itself.