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Mexico, Peak Oil, and Immigration

All too often the American debate about immigration seems to be about a fantasy world in which the value and economic needs of the United States will decide our immigration future.

C. Sherburne | Photodisc | Getty Images

The usual economic debate is about whether we need low-skilled workers to do "jobs Americans won't do" and high-skilled workers to do jobs Americans allegedly can't do. The values debate swirls around the vagaries of America's commitment, on the one hand, to provide a safe haven for the world's "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" and, on the other hand, the importance of America's cultural integrity to the success of our political and economic systems.

There's always been some obvious sense of unreality to all of this. In a very real sense, our immigration reality has long been out of our control entirely. Family reunification policies mean that recent immigrants control a vast portion of new immigration. The lack of effective means of border enforcement means that economic conditions beyond our southern border are far more important than whatever our policies are favored in Washington, DC.

Of course, that doesn't have to be the case. The reunification policy could be pared back. Border enforcement could be improved.

But the political consensus inside the Beltway is opposed to either measure. So, for the foreseeable future, our immigration policy will be decided abroad. And, as Michael E. Webber ,associate director of the Center for International Energyand Environmental Policy at the University of Texas at Austin, and Sheril R. Kirshenbaum, a research associate at the center and coauthor of “Unscientific America: How scientific illiteracy threatens our future," argue in today's Boston Globe, that will mean one certainty: a lot more immigration from Mexico.

From the Globe:

We also must consider how a declining energy sector in Mexico will impact the economy.

Consider Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), Mexico’s state-owned petroleum company that produces crude, natural gas, and petroleum products. Pemex is also the government’s greatest source of income, responsible for financing 40 percent of the federal budget. The Mexican constitution limits foreign investment in oil production and Mexico’s history celebrates government ownership of the industry. This approach has worked for many years, but now Mexico is past peak oil. Crude production has fallen due to maturing oil fields (mainly the Cantarell field, the world’s second-largest oil field), and is not likely to recover to pre-peak levels without a significant amount of outside assistance.

Pemex can no longer afford to update its aging and outdated infrastructure to adapt to dwindling resources. Without competition or outside investment, there has also been little incentive to do so. While international support could help the company pursue potentially profitable enterprises to revive the industry — such as deep offshore exploration in the Gulf of Mexico — the limits on foreign ownership restrict that possibility.

The consequence of a sustained decline in Pemex energy production means three things: reduced income for the federal treasury, fewer high-paying jobs in the energy industry, and reduced energy exports. The first point means the government will have less money to support its programs as demand for social services rises. Concurrently, the number of energy industry jobs will decrease during a time of economic duress. These problems are compounded by declining energy exports and reduced income from global sales of Mexican oil.

The result is a dangerous situation that will likely exacerbate northward migration beyond Mexico’s borders. Unfortunately, this issue isn’t addressed during immigration discussions.

Webber and Kirshenbaum are not convinced that anything can be done to improve Mexico's declining oil revenues. The government is closed to foreign investment in this area, probably permanently. But they hesitate to propose any serious changes in the US's immigration enforcement stance. Instead they offer ideas such as attempting to forestall the coming Mexican economic meltdown—and consequent mass movement of its people northward—with "renewable energy partnerships."

To put it lightly, it seems unlikely that the Mexican economy will be saved by windmills. Nonetheless, Webber and Kirshenbaum should be applauded for recognizing the probability and consequences of Mexico's economic meltdown. And, of course, for attempting to think about mass immigration outside of the cliches of multicuturalism and xenophobia.

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