The discourse of governments in Latin America is almost the same in all countries. The promise of economic development, the implementation of fracking with “environmental measures”, and the menace of “remaining in poverty.” The implementation of fracking is the actual threat.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the technique used to extract gas and shale oil that is trapped in the source rock. These places are characterized by being composed of rocks with very low permeability that do not allow the passage of the substance without additional effort.
The difference between an unconventional and conventional hydrocarbon reservoir is that unconventional contains hydrocarbons that are in geological conditions that do not allow fluid movement, either because they are trapped in poorly permeable rocks or because they are highly viscous oils.
It requires powerful subterranean explosions and the high-pressure injection of water, sand, and a variety of chemicals to open small boreholes that allow the fuel to flow up and the hydrocarbons to come out.
According to La Salle University “This technique employs various substances that can pose dangers to human health and the environment, such as risks of explosion, contamination of aquifers, generation of droughts in water sources, rupture of subway soil layers, difficulties in the areas of livestock, agriculture, and tourism, in addition to the direct impact on the quality of life of the inhabitants of the areas where it is practiced.”
Fracking is a risky, polluting, and costly technique
As new evidence of the impacts of fracking continues to be uncovered and efforts are made to better understand it, there is no doubt that this technique has stirred up much controversy and is very challenging.
Although more is known about the short-term risks of fracking, its long-term threats are still being ignored, yet governments in Latin American countries continue to turn to this method as an option to solve economic and fiscal problems.
In Europe, for example, such unconventional production has been banned in Ireland, France, Germany, and Bulgaria. The UK has considered it but encountered strong opposition: Two days ago, the news came out that the UK’s only shale gas wells are to be abandoned, after the industry regulator ordered them to be sealed. The wells had not been used since 2019 after test drilling was suspended due to earth tremors and the government halted shale gas extraction in England.
These activities put the aquifers that flow underground at risk of contamination and criticize the intensive use of water required in areas where there is sometimes a shortage of drinking water, in addition to the contamination generated by the extraction machinery.
According to the Bolivian magazine Deliberar, the consequences of fracking also include the following:
- Decrease in water availability and contamination: it is estimated that a single fracking well requires from 10 to 36.6 million liters of water for its execution and also, according to scientific evidence, the application of fracking is a source of water contamination.
- Health impacts: there is sufficient evidence and studies that relate the application of the technique to health damages.
- Air pollution: the evaluations carried out have revealed the presence of more than 200 air pollutants at sites near fracking operations.
- Anthropogenic earthquakes: seismicity induced by fracking does exist, it may reach magnitudes close to 4.0 on the Richter scale.
The advance of fracking in Latin America, as well as public policies, regulations, and the social opposition they have caused, shows few differences between countries and many common features, such as the impact on urban, rural, protected areas, and indigenous populations.
Fracking in Mexico is legal, but there is resistance
On December 1, 2018, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, assured in his 100 government commitments, that there would be “No Fracking”. After his inauguration, in principle, only the wells authorized by the previous administration continued to operate.
According to the latest official report, the president’s commitment has been fulfilled but the Mexican Alliance against Fracking, integrated by more than 40 organizations, published in May 2020 an investigation that revealed that “throughout 2019, six plans for the exploration of hydrocarbons in unconventional deposits were approved.”
The investigation also revealed that the 2019 and 2020 national budgets allocated resources to two projects of the state-owned company that required fracking.
Hydraulic fracturing has been carried out in Mexico for 50 years by the national oil company Pemex.
Colombia: anti-fracking, just an election promise
Iván Duque, President of Colombia, was another president who said “no” to fracking during the election campaign.
Fracking in this country is prohibited, but the government, in collusion with extractive companies such as Ecopetrol, has allowed testing of hydrocarbon extraction since January, despite the resistance of the communities.
The danger for environmental defenders in Colombia is rising; opposition to techniques that have a negative impact on the environment has resulted in hundreds of lives lost; and there have been threats and harassment for opposing fracking. As was reported in a recent Impakter article, Colombia, since 2020, is the most dangerous country in the world for environmental defense organizations and their staff.
Although in 2018 the exploitation of unconventional fields in the country was stopped due to a precautionary measure, thanks to the claims of the Fracking-Free Colombia Alliance, the government created a “commission of experts” which a few months later advised to carry out pilot projects in unconventional fields and that looks towards to expand nationwide by the end of 2022.
Andres Gomez, an engineer who worked for oil companies and now is part of the NGO CENSAT Agua Viva, told Ojo al Clima that “No one can say that fracking is going to generate development in a region that has been exploiting hydrocarbons for a century and has the lowest social indicators in the country.”
“No one is spared from the climate crisis.” Source: Alejandro Perez
Bolivia: resisting fracking
Bolivia is still free of fracking, however, in 2011, the U.S. Energy Information Administration published a study that reported the existence of large quantities of unconventional hydrocarbons in this country.
This study alerted indigenous peoples to the danger since conventional oil and gas deposits (that can be accessed using normal methods, not fracking) are gradually being depleted and fracking has since become a latent threat to the country, which is highly dependent on fossil fuels.
In 2013, state-owned YPFB signed a cooperation agreement with YPF Argentina to study the potential of unconventional hydrocarbons, and the operating companies extracted geological samples, which led to the discovery of tight sands oil.
Based on this discovery, the company set out to perform a full fracturing of the reservoir in 2014. It is not known if this was actually carried out because in the following years YPFB stopped generating public information about the project.
In 2018, the Canadian firm CanCambria Energy Corp demonstrated the existence of a mega-field in the area, whose potential gas resources would be comparable to those of Vaca Muerta in Argentina.
The area is home to a dozen Guaraní indigenous communities and peasant farmers, who do not have access to drinking water and fear that fracking will affect their wells.
Uruguay: fracking moratorium
In Uruguay, a four-year ban was in force on December 28, 2017, through a law that was achieved after a series of failed unconventional hydrocarbon projects.
Apparently, the Uruguayan government has opposed the practice of fracking in the country, the Undersecretary of the Environment, Gerardo Amarilla, announced on Twitter that the government was moving towards a moratorium on fracking for 10 years
However, they will decide whether to maintain or lift the ban after the technical report of a scientific commission, which will be ready in August or September.
“Water knows no frontiers. If the Guarani Aquifer is contaminated in Uruguay, it will contaminate Brazil’s side and vice versa. This is why we should join efforts against corrupt decisions that might ruin our communities and our way of living.” said Carol Aviaga, a Senator in Uruguay (2015–2020) who opposed fracking in that country and participated in the public hearing in Brazil’s Senate.
Brazilian authorities remain skeptical about unconventional activity, despite the fact that the country could hold the ninth-largest unconventional reserves in the world.
Argentina: fracking, proof of fracking’s threats
In Argentina, fracking has mainly been accepted as a business practice; these techniques have been used to stimulate conventional wells for decades.
Vaca Muerta (Dead Cow) is a 30,000 square kilometers shale oil and gas reserve. It is located in Patagonia and has been operating since 2010. It is the world’s second-largest unconventional gas reserve and the fourth largest unconventional oil reserve.
The Minister of Environment in Argentina, Juan Cabandié detailed in an audit in 2020, that the shale oil field of Vaca Muerta, showed a high degree of contamination.
According to Ojo al Clima, “Its exploitation demanded large amounts of money from the government, since fracking requires constant financing, as the wells have a useful life of between three and five years, much less than conventional wells.”
There are also concerns about the effect on the health of these populations, with several studies indicating that the frequency of health problems increases as people live closer to the wells, are linked to the rate of hospitalizations and to an increase in infant mortality, low birth weight and birth defects.
Ojo al Clima also states that “Part of these problems may have to do with volatile organic compounds, potentially carcinogenic gasses emitted by fracking wells, but which often go unnoticed because they are invisible, such as benzene, methane, and propane.”
Vaca Muerta is an example of how harmful the use of fracking is; people increasingly complain of contamination and oil waste dumps.
But talking about it can be dangerous. Stefan Borghardt, a German journalist reported that he had been detained and tortured by the police of this region, after having documented the open dump of the company Treater Neuquén SA, where the remains of the Vaca Muerta activity are deposited.
Chile: seeking to be a sustainable country
The previous governments, Sebastián Piñera and Michelle Bachelet, have promoted an exploratory policy about fracking through a small experimental operation in the south.
It is expected that the new government of Chile, with Maisa Rojas as environment minister, will take action on this, because according to her the most urgent thing is to coordinate the work between ministries and thus be an ecologist government.
Maximiliano Proaño, co-coordinator of the Energy and Equity working group explained: “Chile is not a producer, but an importer. The reserves it has are in the Magallanes Region, the southernmost region, where there is a whole identity linked to hydrocarbons.”
According to El Salto, “The countries that are changing their energy mixin Latin America are Chile and Uruguay, countries that are changing faster because they do not have their own oil and gas base.”
Is a green energy transition possible in Latin America?
According to Andrés Di Napoli, executive director of the Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN):
“The [green] energy transition is one of the challenges facing all countries worldwide, particularly Latin American countries. The transition is complicated for those countries that have very fossil fuel sources, as is the case of Argentina, for example, which has 87% of its energy mix based on fossil fuels. Added to this, the issue becomes more critical for Latin American countries because they also have huge trade balance deficits and need to produce dollars to eventually, as in the case of Argentina, pay their foreign debt”
Despite these challenges, the director of FARN calls for these countries to aim for a green energy transition, which, according to him, involves diversifying the economy in both the private and the public sectors.
Latin America needs profound transformations in energy, with a long-term vision, respect for human rights, and protection of nature
Claudia Velarde Ponce, in her Thoughts for a Bolivia free of Fracking, said:
“The development of fracking, far from initiating any transition, goes against this trend because it continues to promote a polluting, risky and costly energy system, based on dependence on non-renewable energy sources with negative impacts on the territories, inequity and lack of citizen participation in the construction of energy policies.”
The energy transition must be holistic and incorporate environmental, economic, and social dimensions to aspire to a transition that is both fair and democratic.
Organizations against fracking continue working and defending the environment. Hopefully, governments will give this pressing issue the attention and priority that it requires and make decisions consistent with respect for the environment and public health, particularly that of local, more vulnerable populations.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — Featured Photo: Friday for Future Strike – September, 2019 Medellin, Colombia. Source: Alejandro Perez, Colombian photographer.