MEXICO CITY—Mexico has significantly reduced imports of U.S. gasoline since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office Dec. 1, as a government crackdown on fuel theft has jammed up distribution and caused widespread gasoline shortages.
Seaborne gasoline imports from the U.S. Gulf Coast have averaged about 350,000 barrels a day under Mr. López Obrador, a 28% decline from December 2017 and January 2018, according to research firm ClipperData.
The decline is the result of fewer orders of American gasoline and congestion at Mexico’s Gulf Coast fuel terminals where at least 15 tanker vessels were idling in the Gulf of Mexico waiting to unload several million barrels of gasoline as of Friday, according to industry analysts and government officials.
It also underscores the depth of a worsening fuel shortage across much of the country that is angering motorists by causing hourslong queues for gasoline, prompting some public transport to shut down, and causing losses to companies across central Mexico.
The government has explained the shortages as the result of Mr. López Obrador’s decision to order the shutdown of several key pipelines that transport gasoline from refineries and coastal terminals to Mexico’s biggest cities to combat rampant fuel theft which the government says cost state oil firm Petróleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, roughly $3 billion last year.
But the origins of the crisis are more complex. The pipeline shutdown had the unintended consequence of making it more difficult for fuel tankers to unload their cargo at Mexico’s seaports after storage tanks filled to capacity.
The shortages also laid bare the inefficiencies of Mexico’s refineries—which operated at an average daily capacity of 46.1% last year through November, according to Pemex figures—and raised questions about the new administration’s reversal of steps taken by the previous government to begin importing light crude, necessary for mixing with Mexico’s heavy Maya crude at refineries to produce gasoline.
The shortages are a stark reminder of the challenges Mr. López Obrador faces as he tries to remake Mexico’s energy industry. The nationalist campaigned on a platform of energy independence, pledging to reverse a long slide in Pemex oil output, as well as halt the export of Mexican crude and reduce the country’s dependence on fuel imports by building a new refinery and revamping the company’s aging refineries.
“Remember that unfortunately, we buy 600,000 barrels (of gasoline) a day,” Mr. López Obrador said Friday. “We consume 800,000 barrels daily. We produce 200,000 barrels. So constantly we have ships entering the ports.”
A Pemex spokeswoman attributed the slowdown in imports to seasonal factors, noting that December is typically the month of highest demand for gasoline in Mexico, and that imports typically slow in January. Over the last four years through January 2018, Mexican gasoline imports have slowed by an average of 8% between December and January, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.
For the first 10 days of January, Mexico imported an average of about 254,000 barrels daily from the U.S. Gulf Coast, according to ClipperData, a 33% decline from the previous month and 45% decline from the daily average during January, 2018. Pemex didn’t respond to questions about the year-over-year declines.
“It’s the definition of a bottleneck,” said Gonzalo Monroy, an independent energy analyst in Mexico City. “If they had enough shipping hoses to offload the ships, and if they had somewhere to store the product, they could manage this problem,” he said.
Reduced purchases from Mexico could weigh heavily on U.S. refiners. Last year, Mexico bought about 60% of all U.S. gasoline exports, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration through October.
“It would create a problem in the short-term,” said Sandy Fielden, director of oil research for Morningstar Inc. Longer term, he said, Mexico likely would need to import gasoline from elsewhere if it reduces purchases from the U.S., causing trade flows to shift and American refiners to find new buyers.
The new Mexican administration also seems to have halted imports of light crude oil from the U.S. Refiner Phillips 66 loaded four shipments of light crude bound for Mexico in October and November, according to ClipperData. Since then, all Mexican tenders for U.S. crude have halted, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The current gasoline crisis is the result of years of underinvestment in logistics infrastructure like storage tanks, pipelines and terminals, said Monserrat Ramiro, one of five commissioners on Mexico’s Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees distribution, transportation and retail sales of fuel.
For years, Pemex has allocated resources to oil exploration and other high-margin activities at the expense of its logistics division, Ms. Ramiro said.
Before Mexico’s 2013 energy overhaul, which opened up the industry to private investment after 75 years of state monopoly, price controls and subsidies on gasoline provided a disincentive to invest in fuel infrastructure.