Hundreds of shale gas extraction wells are spread across the Vaca Muerta reserve region, in Argentine Patagonia (photo: Divulgao/YPF) In little more than a decade, Emilce Beeguier, 33, has seen changes in the community of Fvta Xayen, where was born near the Argentine city of Aelo (1,014 km from Buenos Aires). The municipality is considered the heart of Vaca Muerta, a massive geological formation that is home to the second largest shale gas reserve in the world and is also the ancestral home of the Mapuche people.
“It used to be quiet. You couldn’t hear a car passing by. Now, with the traffic on the road, you can’t cross from one side to the other like I used to when I was a kid, for example”, says kona (“young militant”, in mapuche).
The movement of trucks in the region is due to the exploration of fuels carried out by “fracking”, or hydraulic fracturing, which began in 2013. The technique uses millions of liters of water mixed with sand and chemical reagents to break the shale rock underground and extract oil and gas.
Vaca Muerta placed Argentina among the world’s largest producers of non-conventional gas and oil (those extracted through “fracking”) and successive governments have been investing in exploration in the region.
On Tuesday (20), the first section of the Nstor Kirchner gas pipeline began operating, connecting Vaca Muerta to the province of Buenos Aires. President Alberto Fernández is betting on the project to alleviate the economic crisis that is plaguing the country, as it will be able to save on imports and reduce the lack of dollars that drives inflation.
At the end of April, Beeguier traveled by plane for the first time to an event promoted by the NGO 350.org, to tell communities impacted by energy projects in Maranho what the arrival of “fracking” meant for Vaca Muerta.
Trucks with inputs and waste from the wells circulate along roads in the area used as pasture and, therefore, directly affect animal husbandry, a traditional activity of the Mapuche. “They are run over. We have to be containing the animals all the time so that they don’t go where they’ve always been”, says the activist.
She reports that the 17 families in the community began to suffer the impacts as soon as the “fracking” was approved. “People we didn’t know started to arrive in the territories to make fractures, which harmed the water and, eventually, contaminated it.”
According to a report by consultancy Ricsa, in June 2021, 15 oil companies were operating 1,145 oil and gas wells in Vaca Muerta, mainly in the province of Neuqun -where the Mapuche territory is located. Most of the wells (67%) belong to the state-owned YPF, but dozens of others belong to multinationals such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and Total.
The YPF was contacted for comment on the Mapuche complaints, but did not respond until the publication of the report.
The Argentine energy matrix is dominated by natural gas (55%) and oil (33%). According to the country’s Secretary of Energy, Flavia Royn, 47% of Argentina’s oil and 41% of its gas are produced in Vaca Muerta.
Regarding the environmental criticism of the new gas pipeline, Royon stated that “there is no questioning of the project”.
How oil and gas exploration by ‘fracking’ works
All the oil and gas in the world is distributed in tiny droplets or pockets of gas below the surface.
In the case of so-called conventional wells, the reserves are located in soil that is easier to access, such as sand or clay.
“But some of these reserves are in very hard rocks, so neither the oil nor the gas can move in there”, says physicist Shigueo Watanabe Junior. These are unconventional formations or shale reserves, which can only be exploited through “fracking”.
“It’s a technique for fracturing the rock. Since you can’t use explosives down there, because it would burn all the oil, water is used at very high pressure, mixed with some chemical reagents that help dissolve part of the rock”, he explains.
With the cracks, the oil and gas flow into a tube and are taken to the surface.
As waste, there are millions of liters of fluid used in fracturing, which are reinserted underground or discarded in other places – in reservoirs or, in some cases, irregularly, on the side of roads, in rivers and in plantations.
Earth tremors and lack of water
“Fracking” is the focus of controversy around the world due to its socio-environmental and climate impact.
“When fractures are made underground, earthquakes and earthquakes occur in the surrounding community,” says Mapuche communicator Fernando Barraza. “Houses are cracking.”
In Vaca Muerta, a study by the Argentine Geological Association identified a “remarkable increase” in tremors with medium to moderate intensity between 2015 and 2020. recorded “isolated and low-magnitude events”.
“There was a very convincing speech that [o ‘fracking’] it was going to bring jobs, progress and fundamentally that it had no environmental impact, that it was a clean activity compared to traditional oil extraction. But what happened was exactly the opposite”, says Barraza.
He calls the speech “eldoradista”, in reference to the legendary city made of gold and the promise of limitless wealth, and says that there was no consultation with traditional peoples before the activities.
The Mapuche leader also denounces difficulties in accessing water. “The water tables started to get contaminated and, above all, something that no company or government that does ‘fracking’ talks about: [as petroleiras] they take all the water,” he says. “They need millions of liters of water. Riverbeds were diverted and entire rivers dried up.”
Nicole Figueiredo, executive director of Arayara, an organization that works to promote a fair energy transition, explains that, in other parts of the world, studies have already linked “fracking” to water contamination, causing health problems, and to the lowering of the water table. .
She also points out that Vaca Muerta is a “carbon bomb”, with potential emissions of greenhouse gases that could reach 5.2 gigatonnes. “Fracking has local impacts, but it also has a very significant climate impact.”
The extraction of natural gas is associated with the release of methane into the atmosphere -according to estimates by the International Energy Agency, methane is responsible for around 30% of the increase in the planet’s temperature.
Still according to the International Energy Agency, to reach zero net carbon emissions by 2050, it is essential that no investments are made in new fossil fuel projects. The goal is one of the steps to comply with the Paris Agreement and limit global warming to 1.5°C.
“Fracking” is banned in some European countries, such as Spain, France and the United Kingdom (last year, an attempt to reverse the ban led to the ouster of Prime Minister Liz Truss).
In Brazil, this type of exploration does not yet take place, however, Paran and Santa Catarina, where one of the largest potential shale gas basins in the country is located, already have laws prohibiting the practice. According to the Energy Research Company, there are also potential reserves in Maranho, Piau, Amazonas and Par.
In January, President Lula (PT) signaled that the BNDES would finance the Nstor Kirchner gas pipeline project, but so far this has not materialized.
The reporter traveled to São Luís to attend the event Boas Energias – Maranho at the invitation of the NGO 350.org.
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