By Brigham McCown
February 21, 2019 at 5:00 am ET
The horrific pipeline explosion that killed over 100 people in Mexico’s municipality of Tlahuelilpan on Jan. 18 is endemic of the challenges facing Mexican energy infrastructure.
The rupture was reportedly caused by a leak from an illegal pipeline tap, despite the government’s recent attempt to shut down pipelines to prevent this kind of theft. Since the country is also experiencing a gasoline shortage, hundreds of people were near the pipeline to collect fuel before the explosion.
Mexico’s recent tragedy represents a more widespread problem of degenerating energy networks across Latin American countries. As an energy-rich nation with extensive experience in infrastructure development, the United States is uniquely positioned to help our Latin American neighbors by investing through public-private partnerships.
Latin America’s pipelines, roads and railways are growing increasingly unreliable. More than 23 million people in the region do not have access to reliable energy. Over 60 percent of roadways are not even paved.
As we saw in Mexico, outdated pipelines are faulty and vulnerable to theft. Electric grid and network outages are not uncommon. Railroad construction projects are left unfinished.
Latin America spends the second-smallest share of gross domestic product on infrastructure compared to any region in the world; only sub-Saharan Africa spends less. In Mexico’s case, gas pipelines are so insecure that an estimated $7.4 billion in fuel has been stolen in just the past two years. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is ordering the fuel to be transported by trucks and rail escorted by police instead — transportation methods that are typically more dangerous and inefficient than pipes.
While America has scaled back involvement in Latin America, China is investing in countries from Mexico to Argentina. Through Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, the communist government is paying for new roads, telecommunications equipment and energy systems in Latin America — not to mention a $50 million satellite and space mission station in Patagonia. The plan provides a path to increase trading opportunities between China and the region and is loaded with foreign policy implications and geopolitical advantages.
China is establishing stronger diplomatic ties in the western hemisphere while America’s influence is waning, defined more by wall-building rhetoric than opportunities for partnership and investment. Though diplomats say the United States is Latin America’s preferred investor, we’re just not offering the same support that the Chinese government is. Standing on the sidelines as China makes inroads in Latin America will complicate already growing tensions, threatening U.S. national security and foreign relations at many levels.
Helping countries in Latin America build out their pipelines and power grids would be a far-more effective foreign aid strategy than other forms of undirected aid in these countries. Over the last two years, the United States has given nearly $1.3 billion to Central America, largely to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. It’s time to include more-tangible infrastructure investments in our foreign aid plans with these countries.
Gaining access to more-affordable energy could greatly improve business activity and the overall quality of life in underdeveloped communities. Such important infrastructure updates have the potential to lift the working class and provide long-term economic revival in some of the most underserved regions in Latin America, while also providing important trade and other economic opportunities for the United States.
American leaders and private businesses have the unique opportunity to work together with their counterparts in Latin America to help modernize their critical infrastructure networks. With the resources and experience to provide these improvements, the United States should play a leading role in Latin American infrastructure investment and eagerly extend a helping hand to our neighbors in need.
Brigham McCown is a former federal government safety regulator, adjunct professor and the founder of the nonprofit Aii.org.
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