As US and Canada Threaten to Sue Mexico Over Energy Policies, Mexico “Nationalises” Sizable Chunk of Electrical Grid

After years of confrontation and souring relations with Spanish energy giant Iberdrola, Mexico’s AMLO government has just agreed to purchase 80% of the company’s Mexican operations.

Earlier this week, the Mexican government struck an agreement with Spanish energy giant Iberdrola to purchase 13 of its power plants in Mexico. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (aka AMLO) hailed the deal as a “new nationalization of the electricity industry,” allowing operational control of the 13 power plants to be transferred to the state-owned Federal Electricity Commission (CFE). With this, CFE will increase its share of the electricity market from just under 40% to 55.5%.

The acquisition was made through a national investment vehicle majority controlled by Mexico’s National Infrastructure Fund (Fonadin), a subsidiary of the National Works and Public Services Bank (Banobras). For its part, Fonadin is managed by Mexico Infrastructure Partners, an asset manager of investment funds in the infrastructure and energy sectors, and it will essentially be leasing control of the power plants to CFE. In other words, there are a lot of moving parts to this “nationalisation” process.

Iberdrola’s CEO, Ignacio Galan, described the deal as a win-win while expressing hard-earned respect for Lopez Obrador’s drive to increase state control over energy:

“That energy policy has moved us to look for a situation that’s good for the people of Mexico, and at the same time, that complies with the interests of our shareholders.”

By agreeing to sell up, Iberdrola has been able to put to rest a raft of lawsuits it was facing in Mexico, which could have cost as much as $800 million in litigation costs. The company will now be focusing most of its attention on the US and European markets, where it hopes to graze on the succulent green energy subsidies offered in the US government’s Inflation Reduction Act and the EU’s REPowerEU plan.

Iberdrola’s decision to divest most of its assets in Mexico, until recently one of its most important markets, is part of a growing trend I warned about back in September 2021, in Why Are Spanish Companies Beating a Retreat from Latin America:

For the past 30 years the region has provided huge money-making opportunities for many of those companies. It has also served as a giant springboard for international expansion as well as a highly lucrative home from home during Spain’s sovereign debt crisis. But in the face of deteriorating economic conditions, rising political uncertainty, depreciating currencies and growing resource nationalism in the region, some firms are now getting cold feet.

Rough Relations

The deal is the culmination of roughly two years of intense — and often not very cordial — negotiations between Iberdrola, Spain’s largest energy company, and the Mexican government.

AMLO has repeatedly likened the power Iberdola holds over Mexico’s energy resources to the Spanish conquistadors of the 16th century. It hardly helps that Iberdrola appointed AMLO’s long-time rival, former President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, as well as Calderón’s former energy secretary, Georgina Yamilet Kessel Martínez, to its international board. At one point, AMLO even threatened to pause diplomatic relations with Spain over the abuses of its energy and infrastructure firms.

The 13 (mostly natural gas-powered) plants represent around 80% of Iberdrola’s installed capacity in Mexico. Their combined electricity generation capacity is 8,539 megawatts (MW), with almost 99% of that amount coming from the 12 combined-cycle natural gas plants. A major player in the global renewables sector, Iberdrola is — or at least was — the largest private participant in Mexico’s electricity industry.

The company landed in Mexico in the late 90s, lured by the opportunities offered by then President Ernesto Zedillo’s electricity reforms. It expanded rapidly during the following six-year terms of Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto. Mexico quickly became a key market in its aggressive international expansion strategy. By 2020 it was the largest private electricity producer in Mexico, with a market share of around 20% (compared to 39% for CFE).

Peña Nieto’s energy reform bill of 2014 gave even freer rein as well as generous government subsidies to foreign companies in the energy sector. By the time AMLO came to power in late 2018, private companies, almost all of them foreign-owned, controlled more than half of Mexico’s electrical grid. They also enjoyed huge sway over the country’s civil service, regulatory bodies, and judicial and legislative branches.

Different Government, Different Rules

But all of that changed when AMLO came to power in late 2018. For the first time in 30 years Mexico had a government that was not only determined to halt the privatisation and liberalisation of Mexico’s energy market but to begin dialling it back. Allegations of corrupt practices and price gouging by Iberdrola and other energy companies became a popular talking point at AMLO’s morning press conferences. The juicy contracts began drying up. Instead, a range of obstacles began forming, from disconnections to nonrenewal of permits and fines for price gouging.

The times of plenty had come to an end. And not a moment too soon.

At the rate things were going, the CFE would be generating just 15% of Mexico’s electricity by the end of this decade, says Ángel Barreras Puga, a professor of engineering at the University of Queretero; the rest would be generated exclusively by private, foreign companies.

“Who was going to control prices in the market? Foreign companies, with all that entails. Behind the foreign companies are their national governments. And we have seen how the US government, the US Ambassador and US legislators came to Mexico to try to pressure AMLO to change his policies. Ultimately, they are all lobbyists of private companies.”

There are few better examples of this than US Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar, as Ken Hackbarth reported for Jacobin at the time of Sakazar’s appointment in 2021:

Upon leaving (the US Interior Department] in 2013, Salazar went through the revolving door to work for WilmerHale, a law and lobbying firm with close ties to the Trump family, whose roster drilling- and mining-related clients included none other than — you guessed it — BP. From his lucrative new perch in the private sector, Salazar used his clout to support the Keystone Pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Protocol (TPP), whose “investor-state” provisions would let corporations challenge environmental regulations in private tribunals; fought against ballot initiatives that would limit fracking and distance oil wells from buildings and bodies of water; opposed climate lawsuits against the fossil fuel sector; and, in a highly questionable skirting of ethics rules, provided legal counsel to the same company, Anadarko Petroleum, that benefitted on multiple occasions from his stint in government…

The fact of sending an oil and gas lobbyist to lecture Mexico on renewable energy — one, moreover, representing an administration that just opened 80 million acres for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and is approving drilling permits on public lands at a faster rate than Trump — would be comical if it were not so revealing of the ugly underbelly of US-Mexico relations.

More to Come?

The AMLO-Iberdrola deal has raised concerns in business circles that other foreign energy companies could face a similar fate as the Spanish utility, as AMLO government pushes to expand the state’s role in the energy sector. Bloomberg describes it as a warning shot for international energy companies.

“The choice of words and messages is deliberate,” said John Padilla, managing director of energy consultancy IPD Latin America, adding that such moves could be intentionally sending a warning to foreign companies amid protracted trade disputes with the USA on energy policy. “The main message for private sector investors, at least on the electricity side, is certainly not a good one.”

Mexico’s nationalist energy policies have already stoked the ire of its North American trade partners, Canada and the US, which argue that they violate the USMCA regional trade agreement by discriminating against Canadian and US companies. As Reuters reported a week ago, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) is considering making a “final offer” to Mexico negotiators to open its markets and agree to some increased oversight.

Failing that, USTR will initiate a dispute settlement against its southern neighbour. If the panel rules against Mexico and the Mexican government refuses to rectify its behaviour, Washington and Ottawa could impose billions of dollars in retaliatory tariffs on Mexican goods.

Others see the Iberdrola-AMLO deal as potentially easing pressure on private energy companies. After all, the purchase of Iberdrola’s operations gives Mexico’s state-owned Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) a dominant market position with 55% of total energy generation, thus fulfilling AMLO’s electricity agenda. AMLO’s proposed constitutional-level energy reform bill sought to grant CFE at least 54% of the nation’s energy supply. It fell at the final hurdle. But through his purchase of 80% of Iberdrola’s operations, AMLO has achieved the same goal.

But that goal, of restoring a strong role for the state in Mexico’s energy and electricity sectors, is precisely what US, Canadian and European energy lobbies have been desperately trying to avert. As such, escalation is the most likely scenario in the incipient North American energy war.

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  1. Grumpy Engineer

    There’s something missing here. When I read the final paragraph…

    But that goal, of restoring a strong role for the state in Mexico’s energy and electricity sectors, is precisely what US, Canadian and European energy lobbies have been desperately trying to avert. As such, escalation is the most likely scenario in the incipient North American energy war.

    I find myself unable to identify WHY the US, Canadian and European energy lobbies are opposed to this purchase. Or to identify what the “incipient North American energy war” is actually about.

    1. wolfepenguin

      I agree as well that this part is missing in the analysis. We can speculate as to how state control by Mexico would somehow reduce private investment firms influence on Mexico or that such acts would reduce the leverage that foreign actors have on Mexican domestic politics, but it’s not laid out particularly well. To be fair, the US, Canada, and others haven’t exactly explained why that’s a bad thing either but instead are going straight to dispute settlement so the vagueness may be intentional by the media. But I would have liked to see what Nick thought about this.

      1. Rubicon

        We see this as one more act by which, in this, the Mexican govt. is nationalizing their oil reserves rather than staying within the clutches of the US $$ System.
        It seems obvious to us.Many Non-Western countries are moving as far away as possible by the onerous US $$ System.

      2. tevhatch

        Purchasing electricity from foreign owners creates extraction instead of capital retention. State ownership instead of local capitalist ownership reduces oligarchy leverage and for base infrastructure places an essential raw material for industry with monopoly power into a public weal instead of a profit extraction. In theory good public regulation could create the same, but the money will be even more corrupting and abrasive in private hands. (just look at California, which is why the Spanish capitalist are happy to get out and move north).

      3. Nick Corbishley Post author

        My apologies for not clearly explaining this point. The fact is that I just arrived in Mexico from Barcelona less than two days ago following a death in the family, and I’m still a little frazzled.

        I think there are plenty of reasons why the US and Canada are up in arms about the Mexican government’s defense of energy sovereignty. As I mention in my article, the energy reforms passed by AMLO’s predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto were an exceedingly generous gift to private sector players, almost all foreign-owned. They included significant subsidies, guaranteed profits and the ability to cherry pick prime corporate clients.

        The overarching goal was to dismantle the state-owned CFE in order to leave a wide, open space for foreign energy conglomerates. This it did by creating significant competitive market advantages for private electricity providers while leaving the CFE to foot the bill.

        As I note in the article, Mexico is (or at least was) already well down that path. At a parliamentary open forum last year Carlos Meza, a professor in constitutional law, said the ultimate objective of the 2013 reforms were to “dismantle and privatize the strategic areas of the nation for the benefit of transnational companies.” I think this is a key point: energy is not just a public good but a vital strategic sector that reverberates across the length and breadth of the economy.

        AMLO wants to reverse part of this process. But he also wants private investors and companies to continue playing a role in the electricity market, albeit in a subordinate position to the CFE. José Romualdo, a specialist in energy law from the UNAM Postgraduate Studies Unit, says AMLO “is very careful to maintain a fundamental mixed economy principle, by which the participation of the private sector will continue to be present in the electric industry sector.”

        But the balance of power will shift back inexorably towards the state-owned CFE. And that will mean fewer money-generating, price-gouging opportunities for foreign companies and investors. As a Reuters piece cited in my piece notes, “U.S. oil companies, such as Chevron (CVX.N) and Marathon Petroleum (MPC.N), along with solar and wind power companies, have struggled to get permits to operate in Mexico in recent years.”

        Environmental concerns are among the grievances most widely aired north of the border. Straight from the horse’s mouth, the US Trade Representative outlined some of its concerns last June, when it launched consultations under the USMCA over Mexico’s energy policies:

        Mexico’s actions include, but are not limited to, amendments to Mexico’s electricity law that would prioritize the distribution of CFE-generated power over cleaner sources of energy provided by private sector suppliers, such as wind and solar. They also include Mexico’s delays, denials, and revocations of U.S. companies’ abilities to operate in Mexico’s energy sector, including with regard to renewable energy projects.

        Mexico’s policies have largely cut off U.S. and other investment in the country’s clean energy infrastructure, including significant steps to roll back reforms Mexico previously made to meet its climate goals under the Paris Agreement. Mexico’s policy changes threaten to push private sector innovation out of the Mexican energy market. To reach our shared regional economic and development goals and climate goals, current and future supply chains need clean, reliable, and affordable energy.

        Never mind that the US government is itself opening up huge new oil projects, not just in the Gulf of Mexico but also in Alaska. So, too, is Ottawa. Meanwhile, coal makes up twice the share of energy output of the United States and nearly three times that of Germany. Also ignored is the fact that Mexico is making significant strides in the green energy space. According to the country’s energy secretary, Rocio Nahle, the country has installed capacity to generate 31% of its energy needs from renewable sources. But if the last year has taught us anything, it is that fossil fuels will maintain their relevance for many years, if not decades, to come.

        1. Grumpy Engineer

          Thank you for the extended explanation. That helps.

          And it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. According to the Global Petrol Prices website (, Mexican customers currently pay a little less than $0.10 per kW-hr for electricity.

          Here in the US, we pay closer to $0.18 per kW-hr. And in Germany, home of the glorious Energiewende, customers pay nearly $0.56 per kW-hr. Ouch.

    2. Synoia

      Because it wild affect the US electrical suppliers prices, performance and profits and safety to be compared with a state run entity. (Such as the now privatized in part or toto Central Electricity Generating Board in the UK.)

      And I suspect highlight some interesting practices by comparison, such as maintenance, fire prevention and safety.

  2. Mikel

    “Who was going to control prices in the market? Foreign companies, with all that entails. Behind the foreign companies are their national governments. And we have seen how the US government, the US Ambassador and US legislators came to Mexico to try to pressure AMLO to change his policies. Ultimately, they are all lobbyists of private companies.”

    “Ultimately, they were all lobbyists of private companies”
    The perfect epitaph for the USA.

  3. Samoan

    Combine this with AMLO’s recent nationalization of Mexico’s lithium supply, and you get a bunch of dumb neocons saying we need to invade Mexico because of cartels or something.

    1. Egidijus

      Lack of human rights (trademark registered with the US government) and absence of democracy (i.e. Demparty boot-licking).

    2. OwlishSprite

      Not to mention the fact that AMLO refuses to grow GMO crops in Mexico–Bill Gates’s ‘future of farming.’

  4. The Rev Kev

    Should it be said that the USMCA regional trade agreement is not a suicide pact? The US and Canada arguing that it discriminates against their corporations may sound reasonable to them but I doubt that either country would feel the same way if it was their own energy sector that was controlled by foreign corporations. Certainly Congress would make a law or something. I wonder if Mexico is in secret talks with China to see if they might be able to step in if the US & Canada go the sanctions route. They might see a more fruitful partner there to help them with their economic development.

    1. Ager

      No, there is nothing secret, it is not possible to be clearer, it is only a matter of calculation so that Mexico joins the BRICS+ and leaves the rest (“the democratic West”) totally at the expense of what their large corporations determine: abandon the countries where they now have their seat, after annihilation, or unleash disaster as the last means of readjustment. Sanctions, such as those imposed on Russia, would be the momentum that Mexico would require to lead Latin America towards its integration into the BRI. Is Chinese seaport fever in the global south getting closer?

    1. jefemt

      Exactly! Offended that ‘they’ sewed shut the pockets they had been picking. The NERVE!

  5. Piotr Berman

    The way the electricity market is structured according to “recommended reforms” it entails auctioning of electricity supplies for time periods (and districts?), and starving the plants that provide spare capacity. The preferences for interminent “green” supplies can turn into a racket. And forward (future) contracts provide another room for legal rackets. Lack of resiliency and spare capacity can be beneficial for producers. Perhaps managing 55% of total production and a larger share of total capacity allows to curtail such profits, good for consumers and not so good for producers.

    1. jefemt

      Human nature being what it is, what is unsaid but likely is that Mexico also Nationalized the schemes and corruption systems that were created and in place…

      I’m still looking for that Nation State that is by, of, and for ‘the people’ (lower case) Case. Not Caste.

  6. TimD

    Failing that, USTR will initiate a dispute settlement against its southern neighbour. If the panel rules against Mexico and the Mexican government refuses to rectify its behaviour, Washington and Ottawa could impose billions of dollars in retaliatory tariffs on Mexican goods.

    Many of these Mexican goods are parts for final assembly in the north, or products destined for consumption up here. So they will teach Mexico a lesson by raising prices paid by northern consumers. Maybe the Nortes should have thought this through a little better before they friendshored so much production in Mexico.

  7. Mickey Hickey

    Manufacturing in the US and Canada is now largely a matter of assembling subassemblies from Asia and Mexico. One could easily justify that if more is done in Mexico that Mexico will in turn import more from the US and Canada. I do not see the US and Canada being competitive with Asia in Manufacturing. Trump recognised this and responded with Tariffs as high as 30% to 50% on a bilateral (individual country) basis. This is what endears Trump to an estimated 60 million Americans very few of whom would be in the upper 10%.

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