The Scars of the Land
Vaca Muerta, an area of land the size of Belgium in the south of Argentina, contains one of the most important oil and shale gas reserves on the South American continent. Since 2013, the national oil company, YPF, along with Chevron and Total (among others) exploit these deposits.
In February, the sun beats down on the village of Añelo at siesta time. It doesn’t stop 4x4s and trucks of all kinds from crossing the small town at high speed. For want of sufficient housing, the oil companies have set up trailer parks with cable tv and internet. Felipe, 37, works at an oil well as a labourer. He earns the equivalent of 2,500 euros a month and spends half his time living in one of these metal homes. “We work long hours for two weeks, but then we get to go home for the rest of the month.
A casino has been set up by the roadside. Friday and Saturday evenings are sometimes animated, fueled by alcohol. Policemen are on guard duty at nightfall in front of the service station, the town’s nerve centre.
A few kilometers away, the Mapuche indigenous community of Campo Meripe is under pressure since the oil companies have settled on their land. Albino Campos, the community head, explained between two sips of maté : “they are polluting water tables and stopping us, with their system of fracking, from grazing our animals as we did before.”
According to the heads of YPF, there are no leaks as their wells are cemented. Their drills plunge more than 3kms down, then branch out horizontally. Chemicals mixed with sand and several million litres of water are injected under pressure to fracture the rock and recover hydrocarbons. According to ecologists, these wells can cause microearthquakes making the cement crack and chemicals, as well as oil and gas, seep out. After a long legal battle, the Mapuche have won the right to move freely around on the Loma Campana site. Albino regularly travels over this semi-desert landscape to detect any overflow of pollutants. Checho, 28, goes with him and takes photos that he publishes on Facebook to denounce the lack of respect for the environment by the oil companies.
Oil waste is spread out over the various storage facilities in the region where environmental companies take over treating it. Everything therefore seems under control. But at the end of October 2014 in Neuquén, at the Inarsa site, a pool that didn’t respect norms, overflowed. Comarsa, who were supposed to plant trees round its storage pools have done nothing. Since the 1950s, the inhabitants of these regions have had to cope with the harmful effects of oil : cancer rates and the levels of heavy metals in blood are well above the average. Fracking (unconventional extraction technique) is experienced as an extra problem or sometimes an economic benefit.
At the end of 2014, to attract investors, the president, Cristina Kirchner presented her country as a new Saudi Arabia. This presidential enthusiasm was forgetting the decrease in the price of a barrel of oil on international markets. Shale gas extraction is costly and Argentina risks not managing to redress its energy balance. Produced with Sub.coop