Spotlight: The lessons of fracking's environmental impact in Argentina

Bnamericas Published: Wednesday, February 12, 2020
Spotlight: The lessons of fracking's environmental impact in Argentina

Fracking is viewed with skepticism and even outright hostility in many parts of Latin America and the rest of the world. In Europe, such unconventional production has been outright banned in Ireland and France. 

In Latin America, Brazilian authorities remain skeptical towards unconventional oil and gas production, despite the fact that the country potentially holds the ninth largest unconventional reserves in the world. In Colombia, meanwhile, a protracted legal and political battle has been waged over the possibility of allowing fracking. 

There is, however, a exception in the region. In Argentina, fracking has mostly come to be accepted as a normal way of life as, these techniques have been used to stimulate conventional wells for several decades.

Environmental activists in Argentina oppose fracking on the grounds that it creates toxic waste, saying it contributes to the likelihood of earthquakes and contaminates water sources. 

While underground water contamination, as well as other forms of spills, are possible, they always depend on human error and the probability of them occurring has not increased with fracking as opposed to conventional activity, local geologist Agustín Sosa Massaro told BNamericas.

If the right regulatory precautions are put in place, these risks can be greatly mitigated, said Sosa, who specializes in non-conventional activity at the Buenos Aires institute of technology (ITBA).

On the other hand, technological developments are bound to reduce water use over time, as better optimization and study of water reservoirs allow companies to be more efficient with their use of natural resources. As unconventional activity needs high-quality sand and plentiful water, access to these resources in an environmentally-friendly way will be key for any country looking to spur fracking activity. 

“There are many advances in the study of an area that's going to be stimulated [through fracking]… The optimization of [water] resources is thus seeing big improvements,” said Sosa. 

Plentiful water availability in Neuquén province, which contains most of the Vaca Muerta formation, has meant that the industry’s impact on local water resources has not caused a great impact. 

The province has three large rivers: Colorado, Limay and Neuquén, and regulations forbid companies from using groundwater. 

Some 5% of the water flowing through those rivers is retained by the province for different purposes: 6% is used by the agricultural industry, 4.5% by the mining industry, 4% by the power generation industry, 2% by the livestock industry and 1% by the oil and gas industry. The remaining 82.5% is for municipal and public use. 

An average unconventional well with a horizontal arm of 2,500m would involve between 30 and 40 fractures, for a total of 30,000m3 to 40,000m3 of water per well. The water needed per fracture is therefore between 1,000 and 1,200m3. Tight reservoirs, which require less fracking than unconventional wells, require about 400m3 per fracture. 

“If activity were to become much more prevalent, this would mean water usage would increase proportionally. But starting from water use that is almost insignificant given the water available, even an explosion of activity will mean usage that's in line with that of other industries,” Sosa Massaro said. 

An estimate by Neuquén’s ministry of energy, environment and water resources shows that if Vaca Muerta was to see a total of 2,500 unconventional wells in operation, unconventional activity would take up 0.11% of the province’s total water resources and consume 30Mm3/y by 2023. This would involve spudding 650 wells per year, almost doubling the 336 new wells seen in 2018. Such activity would require approximately 0.15% of the Limay river’s flow, 0.81% of Colorado and 0.76% of Neuquén. 

Vaca Muerta has so far seen close to 1,500 unconventional wells, including both shale and tight wells.

Once the well is completed, fracking is usually situated around 3,000m below ground level. Horizontal wells may move up or down in a 50m radius. The risk of contaminating a water reservoir that is more than 2,000m away is nonexistent, according to Sosa. 

For countries looking to attempt unconventional development, Sosa recommends forbidding companies from using ground water, having a system to control the flow of rivers or other sources of water for the industry to ensure their use is sustainable, and taking proper precautions regarding how fracking sand is moved and refined.

Also, the study of underground reservoirs should be very detailed and these reservoirs should be controlled constantly through monitoring wells to ensure that the production well’s casing has not seen any breaches, he added.

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