Fracking in Bolivia – the fracturing of Mother Earth

Editor’s note: This is a slightly shortened, translated version of an article by journalist Mónica Oblitas Zamora that appeared in Los Tiempos, a regional daily newspaper in Bolivia, on 11th April 2015. The original version did not contain links, we have added these and the footnotes as a service to readers.

This new technology for extracting shale gas is effective but highly polluting, according to the evidence so far. The Government of Evo Morales intends to test it out.

In Bolivia the first steps have been taken to begin using fracking technology, but it is important to remember that the country approved the Law for the Rights of Mother Earth in 2010, and that among the principles of this law are the “guarantee of the regeneration of Mother Earth” and the “protection of waters against contamination”.

Original creative commons artwork by Jared Rodriguez for Truthout.org

Original creative commons artwork by Jared Rodriguez for Truthout.org

BREAKING THE EARTH

Fracking is a method of shale gas extraction that breaks open the earth using technology considered highly polluting, according to the analysis of various experts. The technique uses prodigious amounts of water, which must then be disposed of. A small part of the residual fluids return naturally to the surface, but the majority has to be treated, either at the surface (by constructing evaporation rafts), or by reinjecting it into the subsoil. One study published in the journal Science relates the occurrence of earthquakes with this injection of residual water. The researchers, from Columbia University, said that seismic occurrences in faraway places have triggered earthquakes in areas of the country where the excess liquid for fracking operations had been disposed of [more on induced earthquakes]. The study speaks, for example, of an earthquake in Chile that provoked seismic activity in Oklahoma, and another in Japan (from the 2011 tsunami) that generated shocks in Texas. New York State has prohibited the use of fracking on its territory.

FRACKING ‘BOLIVIAN STYLE’

In Bolivia, [state-owned oil company] YPF Bolivia (YPFB) announced in 2013 that it was commencing studies to identify shale gas resources, and in November of the same year a presentation was given in Santa Cruz about the country’s probable reserves, mainly identified in the Chaco region.

Agreements were signed with [majority state-owned oil company] YPF Argentina (YPFA), to evaluate the potential in this region, and a delegation was sent to the deposit area in the Vaca Muerta region of Argentina. YPFA, which works very closely with the transnational Chevron, has a particular interest in this zone.

On the Bolivian side the [government affiliated] Geology and Geophysics Unit was also directed to instruct all subsidiary and operating companies to extract samples when drilling wells in the Los Monos formation – where it is presumed shale deposits exist for later studies. Smaller scale fracking tests were previously done in Chuquisaca state.

Jorge Campanini, of the Bolivian Documentation and Information Centre (CEDIB), believes that “the possibility is taking shape that in Bolivia the production of non-conventional gas is beginning extra-officially…no law exists to regulate hydraulic fracturing, but as a result of the policy of expanding the frontiers of hydrocarbon production it is possible to begin these studies, such as deep-level exploration, because nothing prohibits it.”

The lack of regulation around fracking is evident. As it its urgency. Three years ago, the Viceminister of Hydrocarbon Exploration and Exploitation said that the issue of fracking would soon be legislated. But up to the present day nothing official has been done. “The project of the hydrocarbons law remains officially a state secret,” says Campanini. Carlos Arze, of thinktank Cedla, is tacit in his consideration that Bolivia is not prepared for the use of this new technology. “In particular, it has to be clarified that YPFB, which is in charge of hydrocarbon resources, has neither the knowledge nor the capacity to use these techniques – which is why last year they advanced agreements with YPF Argentina to realise the exploration of non conventional gas reserves. However, behind this Argentinian company one finds the US one Chevron, which does indeed make regular use of this technology. In conclusion, it won’t be the Bolivian State which could eventually make use of this technology, but rather transnational companies. All in all, the lack of knowledge about the impacts of fracking and the weak legal and institutional situation in the country raise the risk of this being applied here.”

Arze explains that the most evident risks of fracking are general environmental pollution due to the aggressive character of the technique, and especially the contamination of water reservoirs or below-surface water streams, due to the use of chemicals whose effects are unknown, and human health problems arising from the consumption of contaminated water.

For Arze , another express reason to prohibit or halt projects using the fracking technique is the lack of transparency about its impacts from the companies that engage in it. Generally speaking, prohibitions have been put in place only after huge mobilizations by populations who would be affected by such projects.

According to him, as an alternative the exploitation of conventional natural gas is the best option on the table. “Due to the low growth rate of domestic consumption of natural gas, there is no justification for use of other techniques such as fracking; for that, only the intention of exporting in order to obtain foreign currency – as corresponds with the extractive policy of the current government – could “justify” its utilisation. Beyond that, there are sources of alternative and renewable energy that we are not taking enough advantage of in Bolivia: hydro, wind, solar, geothermic, biomass etc,” explained Arze, who also said that after the signing of the agreement with YPFA he had no further information on the matter.

VULNERABLE REGION

Martin Vilela of the Bolivian Climate Change Platform , who has presented on the risks of fracking before the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature, says that fracking is an imminent risk in Bolivia and an absolute offence to the government’s own discourse about Mother Earth. Vilela said to the Tribunal that the Chaco is a very vulnerable region, that fracking presents grave dangers to water sources, and that it would hugely increase the carbon emissions of the country. “Those directly affected by fracking will be various indigenous peoples such as the Guaranis, the Tapiete, the Weenhayek and the Ayoreos.” Vilela explains that it has been calculated that the indirect contamination of waters in the Chaco basin, which would impact three of the nine departments in the country, would affect more than a million people.

For his part Rodrigo Rodriguez, of the Bolivian Forum on the Environment and Development (FOBOMADE), asserts that fracking is already a major concern for Bolivian ecologists because of the indirect impact on the Aguarague reserve, and also for the damage that it could do to the rest of the community. “Fracking has implications environmentally, socially, and for soil and water. This fracturing also produces seismic problems, and is related to climate change. To frack is to forcefully break up the Earth, and this has serious consequences.”

Meanwhile biologist and ecologist Marco Octavio Ribera explains that to frack each well requires the introduction of large amounts of water, which can affect its availability to local populations. “Additionally, the wastewater contains chemical substances or additives used in the fracking process, as well as heavy metals that flow back to the surface.”

AROUND THE WORLD

In Latin America, 300 wells have been drilled using non-conventional methods in the north of Argentinian Patagonia. YPFA, together with Chevron, project further new exploration and exploitation – the majority of it in indigenous territories, without prior consultation nor participation of the affected communities, according to journalist and researcher Hernán Scandizzo of Observatorio Petrolero Sur. As the US takes a path to energy independence thanks to fracking, Argentina hopes to achieve the same from the Vaca Muerta play by the end of this decade or the start of the following.

Currently half of the non-conventional hydrocarbon wells drilled outside of the US and Canada are in Argentina – although Paraguay is the country with the greatest reserves and, while it has fracking on the agenda, it is undertaking explorations with more restraint.

In Argentina, YPFA is in charge of one third of Vaca Muerta and leads on investment with a contribution of some $1.8 million per year. Of that, half comes from Chevron, which went into business with the Argentinian oil company in 2013. “I think there exists a tendency at the Latin American level to allow a deepening of extractive activities. It is happening in Peru, in Bolivia, in Colombia, Paraguay, Chile Brazil and Mexico, not to speak of Argentina,” says Ariel Pérez Castellón, environmental lawyer and consultant on the Fresh Water Program of the Interamerican Association for the Defense of the Environment (AIDA), in Bolivia.

It carries great weight that the exploitation of their own tight and shale gas reserves is allowing the US – the world’s second largest consumer of natural gas – to move towards energy independence, something with Northern powers have been desperately seeking for a long time.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), if the the current rate of gas extraction is not halted and the predicted exploitation of new reserves is successful, it is more than likely that the US will be energy self-sufficient in at least a couple of decades. In fact, currently the US is producing more natural gas than Russia, on whom it was depending for imports until a few years ago. But the US is not exactly known for its discourse about protecting Mother Earth, and makes no bones about its defense of capitalism.

THE VOICES AGAINST

Critics of fracking are making their voice heard more and more. For example the report on “Impacts of unconventional gas extraction on the environment and human health” served as a basis for the European Parliament to warn about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing and ask member states to be cautious in handing out licenses. Although no concrete law prohibiting fracking has emerged in this regard, various European states have prohibited the practice on their territory (Austria, Italy, Germany, Belgium etc).

Amongst [the existing EU] rulings [on carbon emissions] a major absence exists: fracking. The text approved by the European Executive limits itself to recommending to Governments a few very general principles such as “plan developments and evaluate possible effects before handing out licences”, “evaluate carefully the environmental impacts and risks” or “test water, air and soil quality before commencing operations”. So it is that while the UK ‘offers’ 64% of its territory up for fracking, with Poland following suit, France and Bulgaria have bans in place.

Will fracking be the new headache for environmentalists and defenders of Mother Earth? Will the next UN environment meeting, COP21, be a stage for dealing with this issue or will it be ignored because it is uncomfortable for so many? But above all: will the Bolivian government, on its completely contradictory path, continue with its environmental discourse?

(Information taken from El País, The Guardian, CEDLA, Observatorio Petrolero Sur, PIEB).

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