Mexico energy reform: more popular than you think

Has opposition to Mexico’s reform agenda gone away, swept from the capital’s main square by police and from the headlines by tropical storms?

Time will tell – a recent demonstration against energy reform plans attracted thousands and striking teachers are promising more protests.

So it may be surprising to observe – in the first survey devoted to the subject of attitudes to Mexico’s pending energy reforms – that as much as 53 per cent of respondents were pretty – or very – happy with the plans.

See these findings:

Strongly favor……………………………………………………… 1 (15%)

Somewhat favor………………………………………………….. 2 (38%)

Somewhat oppose……………………………………………….. 3 (21%)

Strongly oppose…………………………………………………… 4 (14%)

No opinion/not sure…………………………………………….. 5 (12%)

President Enrique Peña Nieto’s energy reform is seen as key to his whole reform agenda, and though he is expected to be able to get it through Congress with help from the conservative PAN party, the devil promises to be in the details – the secondary legislation needed to put the grand reforms into action.

The survey, commissioned by US- and Mexican-based consultancy, Vianovo, (which stresses neither the Mexican government nor other interests were involved or funded it), paints a picture of a population vague on the specifics of what promises to be a major shake-up of the industry (and, if things go well, the country), but nonetheless willing – based on the little they know – to back it. Probed further, 20 per cent of respondents said they strongly backed the reform.

The findings show only 51 per cent of the 1,000 respondents (the nationwide telephone poll, with a 3.1 per cent margin of error, was conducted earlier this month by pollster Buendía & Laredo) actually claim to have seen, read or heard about the energy reform plan. But based on what they know, 53 per cent of respondents voiced support – a surprisingly high proportion.

What does that reflect? A consciousness that Mexico needs to change to advance? Maybe. The survey found 62 per cent of respondents believed Mexico was on the wrong path – a fascinating insight which begs lots of questions (shame it wasn’t pursued further).

Not everything is rosy: Mexicans are brought up worshipping Pemex’s public nature and don’t want that to change. The poll found that 63 per cent backed allowing Pemex to keep more of its income for investment and 56 per cent liked the idea of keeping it state-run but giving it more independence from the government.

But the public is still hostile to allowing Pemex, or state electricity company CFE to have private partners or profit-sharing contracts with private companies to explore for oil and gas – only one third of respondents supported that.

Pemex is a problem child though – 63 per cent gave it a positive rating but asked to define it, “corruption” and “high prices” were the top associations, Vianovo said.

So with energy reform, it is a case of “to know, know, know you is to love, love, love you”? After hearing nine arguments in support of energy reform, voter approval for the president’s energy plan jumps by 14 points to 67 per cent, the survey found.

What is the best way to sell energy reform to the public then? The survey concludes that focusing on the economic benefits – more jobs, cheaper consumer energy prices – and ensuring that the message that Pemex is not going to be privatised gets through. That means ensuring people know that the nation, not the government, owns the resources but that private investment is needed to break the union-backed Pemex monopoly and boost oil revenues for all Mexicans.

That’s a tough sell so far. For many, the reform is privatisation by a fancy name and some leftists remain implacably opposed. At a recent demonstration in Mexico City, one banner read: “Lazarus, rise up and protest” – in reference to Lázaro Cárdenas, the president who nationalised Pemex in 1938.

Related reading:
Mexico’s ‘Aztec tiger’ economy struggles to earn its stripes, FT
Mexico opens up its energy sector, FT
Enrique Peña Nieto takes on national pride in Mexico energy reform, FT
Rusty wheels of Pemex require much oiling, FT
Pemex turnaround: can it be done?, beyondbrics