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Mexico's Congress approves historic oil reform

MEXICO CITY--Mexico's Congress approved historic energy reform Thursday aimed at luring foreign oil firms back into the country and ending the state's 75-year-old monopoly following a heated debate.

After a marathon session that lasted nearly 24 hours, the lower house voted 353 to 134 for the legislation championed by President Enrique Pena Nieto, one day after it passed the Senate.

Supporters pumped their fists and chanted “Mexico!” after the vote, while leftist opponents shouted “traitors” following a debate during which a couple of lawmakers scuffled and another stripped down to his underwear in discontent.

Pena Nieto welcomed the vote on a “fundamental transformation that will drive economic growth and generate jobs in our country.”

The constitutional changes must now be approved by a majority of 32 state legislatures, with most expected to give their backing.

The legislation is the centerpiece of Pena Nieto's reform agenda, which has led to overhauls of education, tax collection, banking and telecommunications to boost Latin America's second biggest economy.

But opening the oil and gas industry to private investment is a highly sensitive issue in Mexico, where many look back with pride at the expulsion of foreign companies by President Lazaro Cardenas in 1938.

Supporters insist that state-run energy firm Pemex urgently needs outside help to reverse a downward trend in production, build refineries and drill for shale gas and deep-water oil deposits.

The left, led by the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), had called for a referendum, arguing that the reform amounts to a privatization of the industry and a gift to U.S. companies.

Pena Nieto's centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) joined forces with the conservative opposition National Action Party (PAN) to draft the bill.

“Transforming our energy sector is urgent,” said PAN deputy Juan Bueno Torio.

Oil output has dropped from 3.4 million barrels per day in 2004 to 2.5 million today, and Mexico imports half of the gasoline it consumes.

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