AÑELO, Neuquén Province, Argentina—With each new tremor felt in the tiny village of Sauzal Bonito, the old adobe houses rattle, creating new cracks in walls and floors. Although a chronic sense of anxiety looms, Marisol Sandoval and her neighbors have grown accustomed to this frightening increase in earthquakes over the past few years. The increase correlates, according to residents and academics, with the arrival of the drilling rigs.
“The ones who are afraid are the children. They do get scared,” Sandoval said. “If it’s strong, they know that they need to get out of the house.”
The children may have learned what to do, but in the moment they panic, cry, and freeze up. Sandoval said that sometimes the earthquakes are short, other times longer. The ferocity of the shaking also varies, but when the trembling starts, they don’t know how strong the quake will be, or how long it will last.
The pile of rubble where a house once stood in the middle of the village offers a grim reminder of the danger.
People born and raised in the village say they never experienced an earthquake prior to 2015. What they say is backed up by seismic monitoring, which also shows a recent alarming increase in earthquakes. “It’s been three years of movements,” said Sandoval.
Many companies had begun initial drilling in the area. But the Argentine government, under former Presidents Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Mauricio Macri, offered heavy subsidies to oil and gas companies, triggering a fracking frenzy beginning in 2017.
Sauzal Bonito and its residents are the ones experiencing the fallout of the fracking boom.
As 2020 begins, Argentina’s new president is trying to pull his country out of an economic crisis. Like his predecessors, President Alberto Fernández has positioned fracking as pivotal to the recovery. He is preparing a new incentive package for drillers in the Vaca Muerta, Argentina’s enormous shale formation. But as President Fernández seeks to attract more foreign investment, the people living closest to the drilling rigs are already paying the price for the industry’s growth.
Argentina’s fracking rush goes back to a 2013 deal between Chevron and YPF (the Argentine state-backed oil company) which paved the way for large-scale drilling at the Loma Camapana field in the province of Neuquén. The deal set off a protracted fight with indigenous communities that call this part of Northern Patagonia home.
Also that year, the Mapuche Confederation of Neuquén, an organization of various Mapuche communities in the province, hosted a seminar at the National University of Comahue in the city of Neuquén for indigenous peoples from all over South America. At that meeting, representatives of the Sarayaku people from Ecuador warned the gathering about Chevron, the American oil giant. Amazonian indigenous communities in Ecuador fought Chevron for years in drawn-out legal proceedings over contamination from Chevron’s oil operations.
“Here we signed a pact of brotherhood and struggle against Chevron,” said Jorge Nahuel, a coordinator and speaker for the Mapuche Confederation of Neuquén, referring to the 2013 seminar. “If Chevron now wanted to come to Argentina, it would not be allowed to come, and if it did, it would be seized and it would have to pay the appropriate fine.”
As the seminar wrapped up, the Mapuche community of Campo Maripe spoke up, and said that they had already received pamphlets from YPF and Chevron notifying residents that the companies would begin drilling. “We come to denounce what is happening in our territory,” members of Campo Maripe said at the time. The Campo Maripe’s territory just so happened to be where the Loma Campana field was located—the main target for YPF and Chevron in Argentina.
The Campo Maripe lived on their lands long before Neuquén became a province in the 1950s, and long before the arrival of the oil companies. But YPF and the provincial government have disputed that fact, citing the lack of official land titles.
Large-scale drilling required evicting the Mapuche from parts of their land. In response, in July 2013, the Mapuche staged a symbolic protest, occupying a fracking site and planting the Mapuche flag on top of a drilling rig.
A month later, the provincial government in Neuquén prepared to approve the YPF-Chevron deal. The Mapuche staged a major protest in front of the legislature, and environmental groups, students, academics, progressive political parties, and others worried about the impacts of fracking joined them.
In response, the police violently cracked down, shooting rubber bullets and tear gas.
Hours later, the legislature approved the deal. “It was very clear that they didn’t care about legislating against their own people,” Nahuel said. “So that’s how the relationship between the Mapuche community and Vaca Muerta began: with bullets.”
Since then, the various Mapuche communities, especially Campo Maripe, have tried to resist, occasionally blocking roads to drilling operations. But the provincial government and the oil companies have pressed on. “The main problem for Campo Maripe is not fracking, it is land ownership,” Nahuel said. He argues that the Argentine government slow-walks negotiations over land in order to keep the Mapuche in a permanent state of “legal insecurity.”
The battle for control over land is decades old, but the Argentine state’s desire to ramp up fracking in the area has magnified this conflict. “The land problem has never been resolved,” Nahuel said.
Earthquakes Rattle Neuquén
The fallout from fracking is not isolated to Mapuche lands. With each passing year, the drilling has intensified—and so have the earthquakes in Sauzal Bonito.
In 2018, Marisol Sandoval and a group of neighbors took their complaints in person to YPF in Neuquén, a two-hour drive away. Hoping for some sort of response to the earthquakes, they instead got the runaround, Sandoval said. A YPF representative told them that the relevant staff person at the company was not there, but would follow up with a visit. A year passed, but nobody from YPF ever came or offered any response.
“It feels bad because we’re, I don’t know, in an oil zone and we wanted at least a chat with the town so that they could give us a little peace,” Sandoval said.
She hoped YPF would reassure her that the drilling was unrelated to the earthquakes. The silence has only fed anxiety and suspicion. YPF did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.
“There’s no other record in the country of activation of a sector like this, like Sauzal Bonito,” said Javier Grosso, a geographer at the National University of Comahue in Neuquén. Seismic monitoring in Argentina registered one earthquake in 2015, but that number shot up to 30 in 2019. More sophisticated seismic monitoring in Chile registered 80 earthquakes in the area around Sauzal Bonito for 2019.
A 10-minute drive away, the Mapuche community of Lof Wirkalew has had a similar experience. Cracks stretch across the floors and walls of several of their homes like spiderwebs, and thick black smoke from a gas flare across the Neuquén River is visible from their farm.
Making a definitive link between the arrival of the oil and gas industry and the emergence of powerful earthquakes is tricky, but the correlation is hard to ignore.
“This isn’t a theoretical supposition but is something that is obviously happening,” Grosso said, pointing to the cracks in the walls of a house in Sauzal Bonito. In the future, “They’re not going to remember these years as the years when the earth was calm.”
The experience of earthquakes and fracking echoes peoples’ experiences in the United States. Oklahoma had a long-term average of less than 25 earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or greater per year. That changed when the drilling began to accelerate in the 2010s. The state experienced more than 1,000 such earthquakes in 2015. But fracking itself is not causing the earthquakes. After a well is fracked, enormous volumes of water come back up out of the ground, and drillers reinject that water into much deeper ‘disposal wells.’ It is these wells that increase the likelihood that fault lines ‘slip,’ triggering an earthquake.
As the number of fracked wells in Vaca Muerta multiplies, so does the rate of wastewater injection. The volume of water injected into disposal wells has surged tenfold, from around 18,000 cubic meters in 2013 to more than 180,000 cubic meters in 2018, according to data from the government of Neuquén.
The lack of response from the oil companies, as well as provincial authorities, frustrates the residents of Sauzal Bonito. The Argentine government considers fracking in the Vaca Muerta as a national priority, a source of economic salvation at a time of crisis. The companies themselves are powerful, but government officials at both the provincial and national level also have a lot at stake in accelerating the fracking industry’s growth.
“Every time that we want to ask something about Vaca Muerta, nobody has any information, so something must be going on,” Grosso said.
Living in the Industry’s Shadow
Argentina has the fourth largest shale oil reserves in the world and the second largest shale gas reserves, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The Vaca Muerta is the only shale formation outside of North America that “has already made the transition from exploration to full-scale development,” according to Rystad Energy, a Norwegian data firm.
The Loma Campana field is the flagship project for the Vaca Muerta, and has quickly become one of the country’s most important oil operations. But, in addition to earthquakes, living in the industry’s shadow carries an array of risks. A few miles outside of the boomtown of Añelo, where dust and trucks clog the main street, the Mapuche community of Campo Maripe carries on, weathering the onslaught of drilling. As of late 2019, several drilling rigs sit a short drive up a hill from their farm.
Celinda Campo Maripe said her community has suffered from a variety of new health ailments, including allergies, skin rashes, and respiratory problems.
“And the treatments are very expensive, and health insurance doesn’t cover it. It’s expensive to just do the allergy tests. It can cost 4,000 pesos to do the test where they prick your arm,” she said. The Campo Maripe say their farm animals were born with deformities and they can no longer graze them in open fields. Unusual cases of cancer have also cropped up.
They stopped drinking water from the tap, and are forced to buy bottled water at great expense. “We used it to bathe ourselves and other things, but we all buy mineral water to drink,” said Lorena Bravo, another member of Campo Maripe.
The Mapuche have long fought against conventional oil and gas drilling, making the latest chapter especially demoralizing for them. Oil extraction in the province of Neuquén dates back to the early 20th century, but old conventional fields began declining in the early 2000s.
“We used to say, ‘Okay, we have a decade of struggle left and the oil will be gone, and we’ll see how we can get these criminals to pay for or repair all the damage they have caused,’” said Jorge Nahuel of the Mapuche Confederation. “When fracking appeared, it was like an extra twist to everything that had happened before.”
Along with the proliferation of drilling rigs, security and surveillance has also increased. Private security checkpoints have sprung up around fracking operations—not just on the drilling sites themselves, but also on public roads nearby. Cameras monitor the well pads. If someone approaches a site, they are immediately questioned by security guards.
“These are all intimidation actions so that we do not get involved with the issue,” said Lorena Riffo, a researcher and teacher in the Faculty of Law and Social Sciences at the National University of Comahue.
Over the course of several days in the heart of the Vaca Muerta last November, I passed through several checkpoints manned by private security guards hired by oil companies. Fortunately, I was with an activist from Neuquén who was very familiar with the area. We passed through without incident. However, I also traveled with a photographer, who at one point was stopped by security guards after taking pictures of a drilling rig from a public road. They aggressively questioned him for 20 minutes before letting him go.
In September 2019, the attack on the Saudi oil facility in Abqaiq rattled global oil markets. In response, the Argentine government used the event as a justification to expand the jurisdiction of the National Gendarmerie to cover the Vaca Muerta shale. Ostensibly, the expansion of the military police’s purview was intended to protect the “vital economic interest” of drilling operations against potential threats.
However, some saw a creeping securitization of the Vaca Muerta. The head of the oil workers union suspected the federal government wanted to suppress labor conflicts. But the Mapuche see ulterior motives as well.
The decision to extend the reach of the military police “is a way to intimidate the Mapuche people who are claiming for ancestral rights to the lands that are part of the Vaca Muerta formation. In this way, [the government] considers a demand for indigenous territories to be a security problem,” Lorena Riffo said. “In recent years, social, environmental, human rights have been eroded, but in a subtle way. You can only recognize them when you connect the different isolated events.” The Mapuche are routinely depicted as violent, lawless criminals in the Argentine press because of their opposition to fracking and because of their broader fight for recognition.
But the conflict is not exactly new. “What is happening with Vaca Muerta today is a long-standing project. What is the role of Patagonia in the economic development of Argentina?” Riffo continued.
Neuquén has supplied raw materials for the rest of the country since the foundation of the province, and ultimately since the Argentine state conquered the territory in the 19th century. The role of resource extraction continues today, but Neuquén is increasingly orienting its shipments to international markets. The whole premise of fracking in Argentina is to export oil and gas abroad, with a particular eye on Asia. Local communities in Neuquén, such as the Mapuche and the residents of Sauzal Bonito, do not stand to benefit.
In 2018, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recommended that Argentina “reconsider” its large-scale fracking campaign in the Vaca Muerta, citing concerns about climate change and human rights violations, including the eviction of indigenous communities from their ancestral lands.
“Vaca Muerta is a symbol of violence, because when the land is polluted, Mapuche community life is polluted and broken,” Jorge Nahuel said. “There is no doubt that Vaca Muerta is a real death threat.”
This reporting was made possible in part by funding from Periodistas por el Planeta.
Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist covering the oil and gas industry, climate change and international politics. He has been featured in Oilprice.com, DeSmog, The Fuse, YaleE360 and NACLA.