(Neuquén) Argentinian Patagonia is full of shale gas and, since the war in Ukraine, production has exploded. Argentina is seeking to position itself as a global energy player, with the help of Canadians.
On the large arid expanses of northern Patagonia, these steppes where the wind blows and the heat cracks the ground, derricks are sprouting up like mushrooms. They pump the hydrocarbons locked in the rocks of Vaca Muerta, an area of 30,000 km2, the second largest shale gas deposit in the world.
A few kilometers from one of the most exploited areas – Fortín de Piedra – the indigenous community of the Mapuche people of Campo Maripe is desperate in the face of accelerating extraction.
“The fracking has to be stopped. This is the worst thing that has happened to us,” Luis laments.
This lonko (supreme Mapuche authority) has been struggling for years to obtain the title deeds of his ancestral lands, where the extractive companies come to operate, without consulting them. “They’re cracking everything underground. It’s a disaster. Fracking must be banned in Argentina, as in Europe. »
In front of the parade of trucks carrying the water, sand and chemicals needed for fracking – the controversial technique for extracting shale gas – geographer Javier Grosso (University of Comahue, Neuquén) explains to us “that before to pump the shale gas, you have to fracture the underground rocks that hold it.”
“Four to five kilometer wells are dug. Then it is necessary to inject at very high pressure (between 13,000 and 14,000 pounds-force) 100 million liters of water and 15,000 tons of sand. Accumulated in the basements, this pressure needs to be released and causes… earthquakes”.
The houses are cracking. Some collapsed, like that of Mabel, in Sauzal Bonito. At 65, she mourns “the family house where the children grew up” and hopes that the new house installed by the authorities “will be more resistant to shaking”.
For her part, the Secretary of Energy, Flavia Royón, denies scientific studies, such as the one published in Nature by Javier Grosso and his colleagues. She claims to have “evidence that there is no environmental damage” and considers that “Vaca Muerta is one of the development strategies to solve economic difficulties”, while the country is approaching 100% inflation.
Martín Álvarez, coordinator of the NGO Observatorio Petrolero Sur, regrets that the consequences have been ignored.
Facing one of the hydrocarbon processing plants installed on the Patagonian steppes, Martin Alvarez says that “with the war in Ukraine, the whole European market opened up, and Vaca Muerta represents an opportunity to cover part of this market “.
Before the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, around 40% of the gas consumed in Europe came from Russia. At the end of 2022, it was less than 15%. The Old Continent had to knock on other doors to ensure its supply: Norway, Algeria, Qatar, Nigeria… but also the United States, and more recently Canada and Argentina.
Canada, the second largest producer of shale gas (behind the United States), is seeking to gradually increase its production to reach 30% of the total gas produced in 2040. Argentina, a new player, wants to draw on the experience of its North American partner to develop its model. The two nations have multiplied meetings: in June 2022, an Argentine delegation traveled to Alberta.
In February 2023, in the opposite direction, the Argentine Canadian Chamber of Commerce organized the visit of a dozen Canadian companies to Vaca Muerta.
In March, it was the Secretary of Energy, Flavia Royón, who came to the mining summit (PDAC 2023) in Toronto. She sought to convince investors by estimating that “in a few years, the country will have surpluses of 8 billion dollars thanks to the production planned at Vaca Muerta”. In 2023, a 26% jump is envisaged in investments.
Martín Álvarez is much more cautious about the future. “Everything is very volatile, and the market is unpredictable. In August 2022, the price of gas exploded and favored investments in Argentina. At the beginning of 2023, the wholesale price of gas fell considerably in Europe. What consequences for Vaca Muerta? The future will tell. »
In March, the sixth IPCC report reiterated that no new fossil fuel projects should see the light of day to limit climate change. During her presentation, Ukrainian climatologist Svitlana Krakovska spoke from Kyiv, where the sirens punctuated her intervention: “Climate change and the war against Ukraine have the same origin: our dependence on fossil fuels. […] If we do not resolve these causes, it is the whole of humanity which is heading towards its own destruction. »