Fracking in Argentina’s Vaca Muerta leads to earthquakes
New research shows a strong link between fracking and seismic activity in Vaca Muerta, but Argentine authorities ignore the problem.
Argentina’s Vaca Muerta shale formation has seen a spike in earthquakes in the last few years, terrorizing communities that live nearby. New research provides strong evidence that the tremors are directly related to fracking operations.
Since 2017, large oil and gas companies have descended upon the Vaca Muerta, a shale formation that holds some of the largest unconventional oil and gas reserves in the world. Industry operations are heavily concentrated around the boomtown of Añelo in the province of Neuquén.
That also happens to be the location of a series of earthquakes that have increased in frequency and severity, rocking an area that has no historical record of seismic activity before the drilling rigs arrived.
And fracking is to blame, according to a new peer-reviewed paper published in Scientific Reports by Guillermo Tamburini-Beliveau, a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), and Javier Grosso, a geographer at the Neuquén-based National University of Comahue, along with several other authors.
“The conclusions we reached are not far from those that were already known globally: induced seismicity is a fact, there is no longer any discussion about it,” Grosso, one of the authors, told Gas Outlook in an email. “So far, and after three years of exhaustive monitoring, we can point out that more than 90% of the earthquakes that have occurred in Vaca Muerta since 2018 (more than 400 in total) were registered simultaneously with the fracturing operations.”
In many places around the world, such as the U.S. state of Oklahoma, a sudden increase in seismic activity is thought to be connected to wastewater injection wells — waste after fracking that is reinjected deep underground for disposal.
But the Argentine researchers find that the hydraulic fracturing – rather than the wastewater injection – stage, is when the seismic activity is most intense in Neuquén. “It is during the stages of active fractures, when the equipment is injecting the enormous volumes of water at high pressures, when the earthquakes occur,” Grosso said.
One of the startling findings from their research was that when a particularly powerful earthquake that hit near the town of Sauzal Bonito in March 2019, registering a magnitude 4.9, it actually resulted in deformations of the surface of the ground. The surface rose roughly three centimeters, which is “a lot,” Grosso said. He said this finding was “unprecedented globally.”
Not only did the researchers link the geographic relationship between fracking operations and earthquakes, but the evidence also pointed to a temporal connection. Seismic activity ebbs and flows with the pace of fracking activity.
In the months after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the industry ground to a halt as much of Argentina, like the rest of the world, hunkered down in isolation. Oil prices collapsed, and in the Vaca Muerta, fracking ceased for a period of time. The tremors beneath the surface also subsided. Between June 30 and September 23, 2020, there were no earthquakes, Grosso said.
He pointed to another interesting episode. In early June 2020, Shell suspended its fracking operations at its Bajada de Añelo site in Neuquén after a sudden jolt of seismic movements. “We are evaluating the information available and the evolution of the situation over the weekend to decide on Monday how to continue. We will resume activities when we consider that conditions are appropriate,” Shell said in a statement at the time.
Grosso noted that Shell was the only company operating in the region at the time, and the earthquakes were concentrated right around the wells that Shell was fracturing.
“Without fractures in the area, there are no earthquakes. When they fracture, there are earthquakes,” Grosso said.
“State inaction” on earthquakes
The town of Sauzal Bonito in rural Neuquén province has borne the brunt of the fracking-induced earthquakes.
Terrified of each earthquake, the town’s residents have felt the ground shake, their walls crack, and each time the earth begins to shake, they fear their houses will crumble to the ground. Earthquakes were reported in the area as recently as November. Prior to 2015, before the pace of drilling began to rachet up, there had been no recorded earthquakes.
In other parts of the world that have experienced this phenomenon, the government has stepped in to get a handle on the situation. In Oklahoma, the state imposed limits and rules on wastewater injection. In the Netherlands, the government has taken a stronger approach, ordering the phase down of production at the massive Groningen field, where drilling has ruined thousands of homes. The Dutch government has rebuffed calls to return the field to production following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In Argentina, the provincial and national governments barely even acknowledge the problem. Increasing oil and gas production is viewed as a national priority.
The companies, along with the provincial and national authorities, “restrict information” on seismic activity, Martín Álvarez Mullally, a researcher with Neuquén-based NGO Observatorio Petrolero Sur, told Gas Outlook. They don’t provide information to the public, ignore the link between fracking and earthquakes, and have delayed the installation of seismographs for enhanced monitoring, he said. Oil and gas companies have their own seismographs, allowing them to monitor and analyze data. But the data is kept secret.
Mullally added that the new peer-reviewed research was “very relevant” to the ongoing situation, especially in light of the industry’s interest in increasing drilling in response to the war in Ukraine.
The provincial government of Neuquén did not respond to a request for comment from Gas Outlook. Argentina’s ministry for environment and sustainable development, a national agency, also did not respond.
But the frequency of earthquakes hitting Sauzal Bonito is so problematic, that the province has had to take some action. The provincial government announced earlier this year that it would demolish 50 homes in Sauzal Bonito and build new seismically sound homes in their place. Only a handful have moved forward to date.
The province is still reluctant to address the source of the problem: fracking.
“The seismic emergency, far from being seriously addressed by the official authorities, is yet another example of state inaction in the face of the advance of fracking and its environmental implications,” Grosso said.