When government and fossil fuel industry interests are at stake, sometimes it’s hard to get clear answers to even the most simple questions.
So, let’s start with the basics of the fire in Vaca Muerta that started a couple of weeks ago. And ask some new questions too, to get to the cause of the problem.
Vaca Muerta in Argentina is a geological formation that includes part of the provinces of Neuquén, Río Negro, La Pampa and Mendoza, and extends for 30,000km², about the same size as Belgium. It houses the second largest shale gas reserve and the fourth largest shale oil reserve in the world.
This reservoir is exploited by fracking, which consists of injecting a large volume of water, sand and highly toxic chemicals into the deep-rock formations to obtain gas and oil. The geographer Roberto Ochandio has outlined some of the risks of fracking: contamination of groundwater and surface water with multiple chemicals; accidental or deliberate spillage of toxic fluids; air pollution due to losses in surface facilities; water and air pollution due to leaks; pollution from chimneys; respiratory and heart diseases, skin problems, impacts on the endocrine and reproductive systems; and environmental destruction due to the large surface area required for its operations.
In Argentina, fracking has already been banned by law in Santa Fe and Entre Ríos and in 70 municipalities across six provinces, while we’ve been organising for legislation in the provinces of La Pampa, Mendoza, Buenos Aires and Chaco, which is still pending. It was also banned in other regions such as Paraná and Santa Catarina in Brazil, as well as in some US states like New York, Vermont, Maryland and Washington, and in France.
But this is not just a problem for local communities. At least 20 gases have been detected in the different hydrocarbon wells in Vaca Muerta (link in Spanish), including the emission of methane, a pollutant with a warming potential 21 times greater than CO2, directly related to climate change as a greenhouse gas.
What happened and how?
A gas leak on Saturday, 14 September, resulted in a fire in the early hours of the following Sunday. According to an official statement from the company in charge, it occurred in the well LLLO X-2, near the Loma La Lata deposit. According to official sources, controlling the fire would take at least two to three weeks, but almost three weeks have passed and the fire has not been put out.
“It’s a high-pressure gas well”, explained Undersecretary Gabriel Lopez in the official Twitter account of the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources of Neuquén.
However, experts indicate that these flames, about five metres high and extended to the sides, are not only a difficult pressure to control, but also a problem in the surface structure that was created to get the fossil fuel from the well. As Ochandio suggested, the presence of horizontal flames suggest that the wellhead is deformed by temperature and pressure, that there are depth installation failures, cementing failures or underground pipe breaks, which would make it much more difficult to control the leak. Something similar to what happened in Porter Ranch, California, in October 2015.
Fire in Loma La Lata. Source: LM Neuquén
Who was involved?
Local firefighters, civil defense and traffic police were all involved in trying to get the fire under control, while a “preventative committee” was formed by the local government, YPF —the oil company behind the project— and a team of experts from the United States from the firm Wild Well Control — when the fire was already happening. A resolution was also published in the federal Official Journal (link in Spanish), allowing the army to be called to protect the area.
Communication from the Ministry of National Security reported (link in Spanish): “The reservoir of unconventional oil and gas (…) constitutes an asset of vital importance for the strategy of energy and economic growth of the National State. This assigns a primordial value to the area, whose development must be safeguarded through measures that guarantee the security for all and for the goods that are indispensable for the fulfillment of the objective” (translated from Spanish).
What this omits is that true security for all would mean stopping more extraction of new fossil fuels at this time of climate crisis.
When it happened (or, rather: how long has it been happening)?
While the fire began a few weeks ago, these events are not isolated. According to official data from the Undersecretary of Environment of the province, between 2015 and 2018, there were 3,368 accidents in the hydrocarbon sector, of which 48% (1,637 cases) occurred between 2017 and 2018. In the period from January to October last year, 934 incidents were recorded in Vaca Muerta.
Other events worth mentioning:
- May 2019: In the city of Allen, Rio Negro, a chemical spill in a YPF well was reported (link in Spanish).
- October 2018: An oil spill in a well of YPF and the American company Schlumberger, also in Loma La Lata, remained out of control for 36 hours and affected between 40 and 80 hectares in the Bandurria Sur field, eleven kilometers from the town of Añelo.
- October 2016: A spill in the two gas wells in Ysur (YPF), also in Allen (link in Spanish), would have affected almost 250,000 litres of water, drying poplars and fruit trees near the wells.
- July 2015: A well of Ysur, a subsidiary of YPF, exploded in the town of Allen. The spill caused the contamination of the Río Negro river (link in Spanish) and jeopardized agricultural production in the area.
- September 2014: An oil and gas leak lasted 16 hours in the Loma Campana area, in an area operated by YPF and Chevron.
- July-August 2013: The fire broke out in Pluspetrol’s 1513 well (link in Spanish), located in the Centenario deposit, near the town of Plottier and close to a neighborhood where more than 2,000 people lived.
Luis Sosa, secretary general of the private oil and gas union, said a few days ago in a note to Sur54 (link in Spanish): “When there is an incident of this nature, one thinks about many things that could happen. YPF is a state-owned company and has not been making the necessary investments. It’s been keeping up with the little it has, and it’s even come to not have the spare parts it needs for a pumping device and a lot of things.” But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
From February 2018 to May 2019, eight workers died in the oil sector of Neuquén in a context of the dropping of working standards in the sector —with labor regimes of working 12 hours a day for 14 days straight, and then 7 days off — and lack of security measures.
Dr. Sandra Steingraber, an American biologist, had already stated in an interview back in 2016 (link in Spanish) that “death rates in the United States due to the fracking industry are seven times higher than in other industries and twice as high as in the police force, which is considered one of the most dangerous.” No one seemed to pay attention to her warnings.
What is paradoxical is that in this same context of job insecurity, the sector – which already receives multimillion-dollar subsidies from the Argentine state – fracking projects in the country received $1.1 billion in OPIC (Overseas Private Investment Corporation) funding a few weeks ago (link in Spanish).
- Where are the independent studies needed to measure the environmental impact of these harmful practices on health and the environment, which took the lives of five workers only last year? (link in Spanish)
- How will the authorities ensure people’s safety when they are drilling near vital water sources such as Los Barreales and Mari Menuco Lakes?
- Why does the Argentinian government’s main economic strategy for international funding promote the exploitation of non-renewable polluting resources, when science clearly says we need to transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energies?
- How long are they going to use workers’ taxes to pay for absurd subsidies to the price of crude oil?