History Professor's New Book Explores Effects of Oil Drilling in Mexico


As the debate rages over the Bush administration's proposal to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development, a new book by Saint Mary's College Professor Myrna Santiago focuses on the effects of oil drilling on another fragile ecosystem.

"The Ecology of Oil" is the first comprehensive look at the Mexican oil industry from 1900-1938, a period when the search for fuel caused major changes in Mexico's environment, social structure and labor relations. In particular, it explores the dire consequences of a 1908 oil spill in a tropical rainforest in the northern Mexican state of Veracruz.

"I think the book shows that it is quite impossible to extract oil without environmental damage," Santiago said. "The same thing will happen in the Refuge if drilling takes place. The companies may argue that the technology has changed considerably since the early 20th century, and they are right, but the destruction goes on. The Arctic Refuge will become a blackened popsicle if they drill."

In response to rising gas prices, the U.S. House of Representatives has repeatedly passed legislation calling for oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge. The Senate, arguing that oil reserves there aren't large enough to risk environmental damage, has opposed it.

On July 4, 1908 an oil well exploded, spilling gas and petroleum that caught fire and burned for more than six months. Santiago's book documents how tens of thousands of barrels of crude flowed into the Tamiahua Lagoon and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico.

In researching her book, Santiago traveled to Mexico several times including a trip to the site of the massive spill and there she found a locale still decimated to the point that it physically affected her.

"The levels of sulfuric acid are still so high that it's a risky area to go into," Santiago said. "I was only there for a half-hour, but I was already getting symptoms of H30 poisoning. I was physically unable to get out of bed for the rest of the day."

Santiago, an associate professor of history who specializes in Latin America, spent 12 years researching and writing "The Ecology of Oil." It began as research for Santiago's dissertation while she was working on her doctorate in history at the University of California at Berkeley.

"What's exciting about writing a book like this is that writing about a specific piece of history is the closest that we can come to traveling back in time," Santiago said. "We tell our students just because something happened doesn't mean it had to happen. The future is what you want to do and what you make it."

With the public's growing dissatisfaction over high gas prices and U.S. dependence on foreign oil, there is renewed talk of drilling for oil in ecologically sensitive coastal areas. In August, the Senate voted to open more of the Gulf of Mexico to oil exploration. The bill must still be reconciled with a House measure allowing more extensive offshore drilling, raising concerns over the future of a quarter-century moratorium on new drilling off the California coast. That ban was the result of a huge spill off Santa Barbara in 1969 that spread crude oil over 30 miles of shoreline.

Santiago will discuss "The Ecology of Oil" on Nov. 15 at 7: 30 p.m. in the Soda Center at Saint Mary's College. She is also scheduled to appear at Stanford University on Dec. 5.

--Kevin Damore
Office of College Communications