Argentina Looks To Frack Its Way To Energy Independence

Argentina could soon jump on the shale gas bandwagon. The South American country has one of the world’s most significant shale gas reserves. And its government has finally moved to make production more cost-effective. Investors are starting to line up.

Argentine energy company YPF has recently discovered large shale gas deposits (nestor galina)
Argentine energy company YPF has recently discovered large shale gas deposits (nestor galina)
Juan Pablo Dalmasso

CORDOBA Things could soon get very busy for Marcelo Guiscardo and his colleagues at QM Equipment, an Argentine firm that designs and produces specialized equipment - including rock-breaking machines – of the type used in shale gas extraction.

Up to now, the company's production has almost exclusively been for export, with customers in South America, Oman, Egypt and Russia. That could soon change. Argentina, it turns out, is parked on top of an immense reserve of shale gas: the third largest reserve in the world after the United States and China. There are now hints the country is ready to begin exploiting those reserves, meaning QM – which already has its hands full trying to meet foreign demand – could soon have more business than they can even handle.

According to a 2011 US Department of Energy report, Argentina's "technically recoverable" resources are over 22 billion cubic meters, equivalent to about 11% of the world's shale gas reserves. To put things in perspective, even if just 10% of Argentina's estimated reserves are exploitable, the country would still be looking at an amount more than seven times greater than the reserves at the Loma La Lata field in the western province of Neuquén. When it was discovered, Loma La Lata, the country's largest single natural gas deposit, shifted both Argentine and Chilean energy policies towards natural gas.

Finally cost effective

Shale gas is an unconventional type of gas deposit. In order to exploit it, operators must fracture rock by injecting high-pressure water horizontally. The water contains numerous chemical additives used to prevent the fractured rock from closing. "On average, a shale gas well is about six times as expensive as a regular well. And it is exhausted much more quickly since, with current technology, only around 20% of the gas is extracted," says Jorge Feriol, president of the Argentine Committee of the World Energy Council.

Energy start-ups began applying shale gas technology in the United States around 20 years ago. In 2000 it barely represented 1% of U.S. oil and gas production, but by 2010 it had reached 25%. It is estimated to reach 50% in the coming decades. Some say that the United States, thanks to shale gas, could go from being an energy importer to being an energy exporter.

Despite Argentina's huge reserves, shale gas production has been slow to take off – until recently, local selling prices were simply too low to make it cost-effective.

That's finally changing thanks to efforts by the Argentine government to significantly increase the permitted prices for the shale gas. As a result, several U.S. companies, including Apache, have jumped into the market. Since 2008 they have drilled more than 70 exploration wells.

The Argentine oil giant YPF has been talking about shale gas since 2009. Last November it announced the discovery of a major reserve of shale gas at the Loma La Lata fields. If estimates prove accurate, the discovery would increase Argentina's total gas reserves by 40%. Waiting in the wings are several other big name energy companies, including Total, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Petrobras.

Shooting for self-sufficiency

Considering these developments, it is easy to understand why the Argentine energy secretary, Daniel Cameron, announced enthusiastically that Argentina will, in the near future, once again be energy self-sufficient. If that indeed does come to pass, Argentina stands to cut its energy expense by some $5.5 billion per year. Other analysts, however, are a bit more reserved in their energy forecast, saying the goal is reachable, but isn't likely to happen overnight. Even in a best case scenario, Argentina's shale gas wells will not be fully functioning for another five or six years.

That, in turn, assumes that current prices hold. Another potential stumbling block is equipment. International demand is high right now, meaning the necessary machinery is scarce. For local companies like QM equipment, a potential Argentine shale gas boom would mean opportunity, but could also present serious logistical problems.

Could Argentina eventually position itself as an energy exporter? Not a chance, say analysts. That would mean at least a decade of investments and, above all else, rebuilding consumer confidence. Chile still remembers bitterly the 2004 energy crisis, when energy shortages in Argentina caused gas exports to Chile to drop substantially, forcing Chile to quickly build coal-fired plants to meet its population's energy needs. Chile also scrambled to build a large liquefied natural gas reconversion port, which allows it now to buy much of its natural gas from overseas.

Argentina also faces competition closer to home. Many other South American countries, including Brazil, have substantial shale gas reserves of their own. "But we're still leaders when it comes to exporting technology and know-how," says QM's Marcelo Guiscardo.

Regardless of Argentina's place in the world market, business has been very good for his company, which has received a number of new orders for high-horsepower fracturing equipment.

Read more from AméricaEconomía in Spanish

Photo - nestor galina

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!