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The Politics of Sociocultural Impacts in Mexico’s Ongoing Energy Transition

  • Author(s): Martinez, Nain B.;
  • Advisor(s): Potts, Matthew D.;
  • et al.

Grounded in science and technology studies (STS) and political economy, this dissertation elucidates and analyzes the construction of Mexico’s controversy regarding the sociocultural impact of renewable energy technologies and their central role in the domestic politics of its ongoing energy transition (ET). Much attention has been devoted to the diffusion of policies and technologies of ETs and measures taken to strengthen their technical and economic viability. However, the opposition to policies and infrastructures of ETs has revealed that the implications of these transformations exceed the substitution of technologies and energy resources, having broad interplay with the social domain. This issue can be illustrated by Mexico’s controversy around the sociocultural impacts of renewables. From its local origin in an indigenous territory to its implications for international climate policy, this controversy is evidence of the complex interplay between the social arena and ETs and problematizes their compensations and contradictions.

Research in political economy tends to underestimate the role of the sociotechnical arrangement of technological projects and their contextual meaning in the shaping of the agendas and visions of actors and social groups. In analyzing these issues, scholars frequently focus on later stages where the objective and subjective frame of actors' agendas have already been delineated. I focus on the earlier stages of these issues by investigating critical areas in the construction of Mexico's renewables controversy, specifically: i) its epistemological development, ii) the formation of the policy intended to address this issue, and iii) the subsequent implementation of these policy tools. In doing so, I argue, the design of the ET policy played a crucial role in defining the characteristics that shaped renewable energy projects in Mexico. In turn, the contours of the controversy over sociocultural impacts were shaped by the interaction of these projects with the particular vision of the territory hold by the indigenous Huave and Zapotec communities and their social organization. I also argue that among the diverse possibilities for addressing this controversy, the government response led to the design of policy tools that have limited scope for altering the interplay between projects' sociotechnical arrangements and local communities. As a result, the design of this political solution has prevented the closure of the controversy, leading to the current political instability.

In Chapter 2, “Resisting renewables: The energy epistemics of social opposition in Mexico,” I examine the academic and technical research on social opposition to renewable energy (RE) in Mexico and the normative visions embedded in this body of knowledge. Previous research has examined the authoritative role of knowledge production in the shaping of ETs, yet non-economics social research has received less attention. I argue that social research plays a central role in some components of ETs, and when these areas concern an unequal dispute between different interests and visions, then the production of knowledge, its outcomes, and its use can have vast energy justice implications. In the Mexican case, researchers have addressed the opposition to renewables through different understandings of human interactions with projects and methodological choices, shaping critical aspects of knowledge-making, such as the voices and agendas of the included social groups. In their outcomes, these research practices have offered competing interpretations of the causes of social opposition and the alternatives to solutions, which propose different material and symbolic roles to communities (e.g., downstream policy fixes for addressing social externalities vs. communitarian involvement in the decisions, management, and benefits of projects). Through a subject of controversy characterized by the lack of domestic regulation and experience and limited institutional capacity, social research has exceeded the academic domain, providing critical insights into the activism, the policy formation, and the practices of governmental and private actors.

In Chapter 3, “The social and material shaping of Mexico’s energy transition,” I analyze the formation of Mexico’s Law on the Use of Renewable Energies and Financing of the Energy Transition (LAERFTE-2008) and social impact assessment (2014), tracing the translation of this controversy back to the sector’s institutions and the process of policy formation. I argue that although climate mitigation and the social opposition of renewables have promoted destabilizing changes in the political regime of Mexico's energy sector, the existing sociotechnical arrangement of this system has meant that entrenched industrial interests and values, as well as bureaucratic decision-making norms, have persisted in the way that institutions process these agendas and in the design of policies and regulations. Mexico's position in the international politics of climate change and the limitations that the national regulatory framework to the development of renewables played a crucial role in the design of LAERFTE. The solutions that this Law established to the investment and cost-effectiveness of renewables and their intermittency and transmission frame the particular arrangement of the projects took in Mexico - wind, large-scale, private, for the consumption of large corporations - and their concentration in Tehuantepec. The local effect of these projects and their interaction with the vision and organization of the indigenous Huave and Zapotec communities that inhabit this region defined the emergence of opposition groups with a discourse focused on sociocultural revindication. The centralism and top-down management that have characterized energy institutions and policies and the dispute between the political left and right regarding private participation in this sector framed the institutional translation of this controversy and the design trajectory of the SIAs and associated policy tools.

In Chapter 4, “The effectiveness of the social impact assessment (SIA) in energy transition management: Stakeholders' insights from renewable energy projects in Mexico,” I analyze the performance of this policy tool in Mexico’s renewable sector. Social opposition to renewable energy projects has become a significant issue both for the deployment of RE technologies and its social justice implications, yet the policy tools oriented to address this issue have received little research attention, particularly in the Global South. Since its introduction in 2014, the SIA has generated some favorable changes in the sector’s social management. Yet, its effectiveness is constrained by diverse issues related to its institutional and regulatory design, government implementation, practices of companies and consultants, and restricted social involvement. Moreover, the sector’s sociotechnical arrangement (priorities, organization, experience, and policies) strongly influences the performance of SIAs and accounts for the lack of consideration of social aspects in project design and planning. Thus, I argue that without a substantial internalization of the social dimension in the priorities, policy, and planning of RE, the SIA would be limited to a problem-fixing role, which would constrain the effective management of social impacts.

This dissertation builds on and extends STS scholarship on energy transitions in three distinct ways i) research in social sciences, showing the justice implications that may stem from research practices ii) the formation of policies and regulations, revealing the role played by social and material factors and iii) the management of social impacts and relations, demonstrating the crucial role of these areas in the construction of energy futures. By tracing and deconstructing these arenas, my findings show that the practices of knowing, governing, managing, and contesting renewable energy projects have been intimately intertwined: From international climate negotiations to Mexico's adoption of energy transition (ET) policies and the emergence of local opposition groups to the formation of policy tools for addressing social impacts, to the current uncertainty facing Mexico's climate policy. The interplay among research production, political agendas, and regulatory rules have influenced each other at the international, national, and local domains, co-producing Mexico's particular energy transition pathway, regional geographies of energy development, social movements, actors' practices, and societal views. Taken collectively, my findings uncover existing alternatives that can help think about, design, and govern a fair ET system in Mexico, and reveal the political and social risks of driving top-down ETs without a substantive involvement of the communities.

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