Tribunal Delegation to Investigate
the Case of Fracking – Argentina 2023
The Vaca Muerta Tribunal Delegation investigated the impacts of the expansion of the extractive frontier on Rights of Nature and Indigenous Peoples in Patagonia – Argentina.
Between March 29th and April 5th, 2023, a delegation of judges from the International Rights of Nature Tribunal visited Vaca Muerta, in the Argentinian provinces of Neuquén and Río Negro. The delegation focused on the environmental and human rights impacts of the expansion of the extractive fracking industry in the region.
During the visit, the delegation met with representatives of the government, oil companies, social organizations, and communities affected by the activity. The agenda included visits to the province of Neuquén, where the Vaca Muerta megaproject and the oil companies are located; to the oil dumps in Neuquén Capital and Añelo, where contamination and illegal storage of toxic waste from fracking has been reported; to the Ruca Mapuche, to evaluate the impacts on the territory and the rights of Indigenous Peoples; and to the town of Sauzal Bonito, where seismic movements have been recorded and the relationship between fracking and earthquakes has been questioned.
At the end of the visit, the delegation presented a report of the findings at a meeting at the Chamber of Deputies of Argentina.
Meet the judges
Gabriela Cabezón Cámara
Climate and environmental crisis
In most of the legal systems operating in the world today Nature only exists as a “natural resources”; a form of human property to be exploited – to a greater or lesser degree – at will. Our current legal systems make it impossible to truly protect Nature in a court of law.
It is now clearer than ever that these legal systems have not only failed to protect our planet from the advances of an insatiable extractivism, but are, in fact, the tools of that same extractivism, supposedly “regulating” the destruction caused by industries such as mining and fracking, while in practice only sanctioning and perpetuating it.
Faced with the inadequacy of traditional environmental law, the Rights of Nature present as a new form of jurisprudence that, by recognizing Nature as a legal subject of rights just like humans, pushes courts to look beyond economic incentives and make decisions based on the interests of both humanity and the Earth community as a whole.
Time is up: the ecological crisis is upon us. To deny it would be to reject the evidence we see with our own eyes, and we cannot afford to continue to comply with laws that are fundamentally inadequate to address the current situation; the Rights of Nature must be recognized at the legal level, at all scales: from the local, to the national and international, if we are to avoid this crisis.
To this end, the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature aims to demonstrate how the Rights of Nature can be applied by presenting a series of urgent real-world cases before a panel of distinguished judges, who examine and rule on the cases from a Rights of Nature perspective.
The International Rights of Nature Tribunal and the case of Vaca Muerta, Argentina
In the course of its 5th session, which took place in Santiago, Chile in December 2019, the Tribunal had the opportunity to gather information and data and hear allegations regarding the impacts of fracking on the Rights of Nature and Human Rights in Vaca Muerta, Argentina. At the close of the session, the Tribunal judges recommended a field mission to collect additional evidence on the allegations so that the court could issue a final verdict.
Specifically, the Tribunal ruled as follows:
Fracking and its impacts on Vaca Muerta, Patagonia
In specific terms, Vaca Muerta designates a sedimentary formation that extends some 30,000 km2, in the heart of the Neuquén plateau. In this enormous surface rich in dinosaur fossils and hydrocarbon deposits, there are some 31 projects, of which only 5 are in production stage, with strong protagonism of YPF and Tecpetrol, and presence of the big transnationals of the sector. In broader terms, the problem posed by Vaca Muerta involves a larger area, the Neuquén Basin, which includes different shale and tight geological formations, a total of 120,000km2, between the provinces of Neuquén, South of Mendoza and La Pampa and North of Río Negro. Thus, we find the Lajas formation, in which tight gas has been extracted since 2011 between pear and apple plantations in the Rio Negro town of Allen, now owned by YPF. In 2018, the exploitation frontier was also extended to Malargüe, in Mendoza, where fracking was authorized by provincial decree.
cubic meters of water a year
Thus, we are faced with a set of mega-projects associated with extreme energies whose social impacts, environmental and territorial impacts tend to be broad, as they have repercussions on different territories, populations and economies.
One of the major problems of fracking is the use of water, a detail not minor in the Neuquén plateau, an area of scarce water resources. A recent report indicates that by 2023, water demand in Vaca Muerta will double and will reach almost 30 million cubic meters per year.
Another major problem is the storage of toxic waste generated by the activity. The existing oil dumps in Vaca Muerta reveal enormous deficiencies, as exemplified by the company Treater, whose landfill, located five kilometers from Añelo, which occupies 13.6 hectares (equivalent to 15 soccer fields), was denounced in 2018 before the courts for not respecting the minimum distance from an urban nucleus (eight kilometers), and for having waste disposal pools without adequate drainage channels or protective meshes that prevent soil and water table contamination, as required by national legislation. Treater’s clients include YPF, Shell, and Total.
Another impact is the intensive use of the land. Oil locations occupy between one and one and a half hectares, where several wells are grouped together. A single well, drilled vertically up to 2000 meters and horizontally up to 1200 meters removes about 140m3 of soil, so an average platform removes about 830m3, almost ten times more than a conventional well drilled at 2000 meters depth. Each rig can access only a small area of the reservoir to be exploited, so it is common to have multiple rigs over the reservoir, requiring a large enough surface area to allow for deployment and storage of fluids and equipment. This accentuated the dispute over the territory with the native peoples, as some twenty Mapuche communities are dispersedly settled in Vaca Muerta. In 2014 the government of Neuquén had to recognize the community of Campo Maripe, settled in the area since 1927. Although the disputed territory is about 10,000 hectares, the government only accepted about 900 hectares as part of the community.
In April 2019, the community was brought to trial for “usurpation”, and although the judge in charge acquitted them, two months later, in a clear political signal, the ruling was annulled.
Thus, the advance of the locations ostensibly pushes the native peoples in the area and aggravates the historical process of criminalization of the Mapuche communities. Likewise,
the problem is visible in Allen, where the decline of the fruit activity is evident: with more than 150 fracking wells and 93 in the pipeline, already approved by the municipality, the data reveal that between 2009 and 2014 the locality lost 409 hectares, that is 6.3% of the cultivated area.
Finally, among the palpable impacts is the increase in seismicity. From the beginning, seismic records run through the global mapping of fracking, affecting geologically stable regions before the arrival of extreme energies. In Neuquén, together with the increase of environmental and labor accidents, one of the greatest concerns is the increase of seismicity, which affects the locality of Sauzal Bonito, although it has also extended to Cutral Co. According to recent studies, Sauzal Bonito will settle on the Huincul Ridge, a geological fault system, although it is not ruled out that the constant movements are also anthropogenic, related to fracking. As a result, the province ordered the installation of seismographs to monitor the movements.
The current scenario in the Neuquina Basin clearly denies the existence of “safe and responsible fracking”, a formula spread globally and repeated locally and nationally by oil companies and governments. It should be added that none of what is happening comes as a surprise, since the information on the environmental and territorial impacts of fracking was already available in 2013, the year in which exploitation began in Vaca Muerta. The difference between 2013 and 2023 is that the impacts, in their multidimensional nature, are already visible and palpable. If we add to this the fact that, in reality, Vaca Muerta has barely taken off, since only 3% has been exploited, it is worth asking what will be the extent of the impacts when the large scale is a reality.
Finally, in a context of climate emergency, Vaca Muerta is considered a potential carbon bomb (28.9 billion tons of CO2 equivalent to 2/3 of current global CO2 emissions).
Far from being a “transition fuel” as oil corporations have been claiming, shale gas and tight gas generate higher greenhouse gas emissions than conventional gas during their production stage, since more wells are needed per cubic meter of gas produced; their operations use energy, generally from diesel engines, which increases CO2 emissions per unit of useful energy produced. Hydraulic fracturing also requires more energy consumption and even more venting or flaring of gas during the completion phase of the well. On the other hand, methane gas emissions contribute very powerfully to the greenhouse effect. It is no coincidence that in 2018 the UN Committee on ESCR made it clear that, if progress is made in Vaca Muerta, “the full exploitation, with hydraulic fracturing, of all shale gas reserves would consume a significant percentage of the global carbon budget to achieve the goal of (no more than) 1.5 degrees Celsius warming, stipulated in the Paris Agreement”, and will therefore recommend the Argentine State to reconsider the exploitation in vaca Muerta, in light of the commitments adopted.
ORGANIZADOR DE LA VISITA Y TRIBUNAL
International Rights of Nature Tribunal
The Tribunal is an ethical platform of civil society that acts in a subsidiary manner to States to review cases and judge them through the lens of the rights of Nature. The Tribunal has judges recognized for their impeccable ethical and moral trajectory, which makes their verdicts heard and respected by civil society.
Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (GARN)
The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, GARN, is a global network of organizations and individuals committed to the universal adoption and implementation of legal systems that recognize, respect and enforce the “Rights of Nature”.
Argentine Association of Environmental Lawyers
For more than 20 years, the Argentine Association of Environmental Lawyers has been a space of activism and militancy for ecological and social justice. Through legal litigation and advocacy in political spheres, the Association has accompanied the major struggles of the socio-environmental movement.
#MIRÁ, Ecofeminist Cultural Collective (Argentina)
#Mirá is a cultural collective of women with an ecofeminist perspective, composed of writers, journalists and researchers, whose objective is to contribute to the debate on the climate emergency and its relationship with the neo-extractive model in Argentina and the Latin American region.
HOSTS IN ARGENTINA
Mapuche Confederation of Neuquén
Territorial organization representing the Native Authorities (Logko, Pijan Kuse, Werken, Kona) of the Xawvnko Zonal Council of the Mapuche Confederation of Neuquén.
Human Rights Assembly of Neuquén
Historical organization of the province of Neuquén for its struggle for memory, truth and justice in the violation of human rights by State terrorism.
Southern Petroleum Observatory (Argentina)
Its main challenge is to make energy production and consumption fair, democratic, healthy and sustainable. To this end, it uses tools such as communication, training, research and public policy advocacy in terms of articulation and creation of social movement.
Tribunal delegation members
Juan Pablo Chiapero
Argentina GARN Latin America
Alejo Di Risio
a) Visit to the province of Neuquen
Neuquén is the province where the fossil consensus regarding the promotion of the Vaca Muerta megaproject is based, and where the oil companies are headquartered. Certainly, most of the unconventional exploitation (approximately 3% of the geological formation is exploited so far) takes place in a historically hydrocarbon province, accustomed to receive income from the activity. Job creation, market incentive and royalties have been elements valued by public officials, trade unions, and by the inhabitants of Neuquén itself, functioning as legitimacy discourses on which the positions in favor of exploitation are based.
b) Oil landfills: Neuquén Capital and Añelo.
In December 2020 the Argentine Association of Environmental Lawyers filed a detailed complaint before the judicial authority of Neuquén against COMARSA, one of the companies disposing of toxic waste from fracking in Vaca Muerta, and against some of the transnational companies operating in the sector, on charges of non-treatment, contamination and illegal storage of toxic and harmful waste with the connivance of public authorities. A similar case to COMARSA is that of another company, Treater, already denounced by Greenpeace Argentina, AAdeAA and the Mapuche Confederation of Neuquén in 2018.
c) Visit to Vaca Muerta and the Ruca Mapuche on the outskirts of Neuquén.
As we have said, Vaca Muerta is a geological formation that gained public relevance in 2010, when the company Repsol-YPF accessed unconventional hydrocarbons for the first time in southern Argentina, thus inaugurating a new stage in energy production projections. By occupying the second and fourth place globally for its reserves in shale gas and oil,
Vaca Muerta allowed renewing the bets of the political leadership of the national and subnational governments focused on the deepening of an extractive model based on fossil sources. This became more vigorous in the face of the problem of fuel self-supply, as well as in the development of a business scheme aimed at improving the export profile of the economy.
d) Visit to the town of Sauzal Bonito
In May 2022, the community of Sauzal Bonito recorded seismic movements with a maximum intensity of 4.5 on the Richter scale. Overall in the hydrocarbon production area of Neuquén 206 seismic episodes were recorded between 2015 and 2020, and despite this, the authorities continue to deny any relationship between fracking and increased seismicity and the environmental impact studies themselves do not consider the induced effects.
g) Interim report of the delegation to the Argentinean Congress.
At the end of the on-site visit of the delegation, on their return to the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, the judges of the Tribunal will present the provisional results of the visit in a meeting to be held in the Chamber of Deputies of the Argentine Nation.