What is Vaca Muerta: a clear explanation to understand what is talked about so much

Hardly any Argentinian has not heard of Dead cow more than a decade after the start of its development, but Do you really know what it is? In this article we will explain in simple and clear terms what it is about, what it does and why it is so important for the country.

Vaca Muerta is not something new, In fact, it’s the opposite. Is about a geological formation, that is, something that is in the earth, and in this case specifically at about 2,500 meters deep. And since she marked herself, she is not new.

The origins of Vaca Muerta date back millions years ago, as happens with all the gas and oil in the world. In this specific case, what gave rise to the formation of hydrocarbons was the accumulation of organic material, which is worth the spoiler, it is not dinosaur bones, but organic material from small mollusks and algaesince although it may be hard to believe today, millions of years ago Vaca Muerta was the Pacific coast.

With the passage of many years, that deposit of organic material – the basis of hydrocarbons – became trapped, covered by earth. It was sealed and a kind of cooking process began. of those organic remains that took millions of years.

Its development caused a large part of the gas and oil that was generated to migrate over time towards what we know as conventional basins, in this case the Neuquén Basin. But In a type of rock, similar to some extent to the stone we use on the countertops in our homes, a significant amount of gas and oil remained. caught.

The map of Vaca Muerta shows where each of the concessioned areas is.

The description of Vaca Muerta as a hydrocarbon-forming source rock dates back to 1931when in fact was baptized with that name by the geologist Charles Edwin Weaver, but In those years, technology had no way to literally extract oil and gas from a rock..

Eighty years passed until the first well was dug in 2010. which allowed oil to be extracted from that rock, and to begin recent but much more active history, since at this time A technique had been developed in the United States that allowed its use: fracking.

A very common mistake is to consider that Vaca Muerta is a site, putting it, for example, at the level of deposits such as Loma La Lata or Cerro Dragón. As indicated, it is a geological formation that also It has 36,000 square kilometers, It is almost the size of the province of Neuquen and in addition to that province, with its triangle shape, it is located partly in Río Negro, Mendoza and La Pampa.

Inside, there are today 47 unconventional concessions granted by the province of Neuquén and 2 more unconventional permits in Río Negro. In both cases, the granting powers are the provinces, as could happen with Mendoza and La Pampa, since since the reform of the National Constitution of 1994, hydrocarbon resources ceased to belong to the Nation, which only has power over the seabed. , about offshore.

Activity in Vaca Muerta It takes place in 49 areas that cover hundreds of kilometers, but whose epicenter is the Añelo area.

In the 47 Neuquén concessions and the 2 Río Negro permits there are Today there are 12 companies that are operating those areas, that is, they are taking charge of their activity. But there is also a group of six other companies that are partners of several of the blocks, but whose presence is a kind of investor that recovers its contributions with production.

In the list of the 12 companies with their own uniforms, not all the firms are national and, needless to say, not everything is YPF, although the national oil company is the one that leads the activity. In addition to YPF, Pluspetrol, Tecpetrol, Vista, Pan American Energy (PAE) Capex and Pampa Energía are present in what we could say are the national companies.

While in the international category or with majority external financing they are Phoenix Global Resources (PGR), Shell, Total Energies, Chevron and even ExxonMobil.

But there are also the non-operating partner companies, those that contribute capital, such as Petronas, Equinor, Wintershall DEA, the petrochemical company Dow, the fuel trader Trafigura and the Neuquén state company that has an association model with the operators Gas and Oil of Neuquén (GyP).

Fracture sets are responsible for breaking the rock that is Vaca Muerta so that gas and oil can flow.

With the concessioned areas and the dollars in hand, what the companies do is wells which have the particularity of descend to Vaca Muerta, about 2,500 meters, and from there they “turn” towards the south for about 2,500 to 4,000 metersaccording to the design of each company.

That lateral or horizontal branch is the one that runs through the Vaca Muerta strip itself, and is where fracking is done.which is injecting water and sand at very high pressure to generate a type of channels within the rock that is Vaca Muerta.

These channels are kept stable by the sand that is injected, which must be of a special hardness. And due to the pressure that exists at those depths and the presence of hydrocarbons, after the water returns to the surface, gas and oil arrive, which can come alone or together, depending on the Vaca Muerta area.

This technique to extract gas and oil is not conventional and that is why it is said that Vaca Muerta is unconventional, although It’s not that their oil and gas are unconventional, nor that the training is, What is unconventional is the technique with which it is extracted.

Independent pumping devices (AIB) They are used in both Vaca Muerta and conventional. (Photo: Matías Subat)

The most viewed image of Vaca Muerta is one of those huge towers, tall like a multi-story building. Those towers are not the wells of Vaca Muerta, are the equipment used to drill the land and make the wells.

Once the drilling is finished, another type of equipment comes, made up of about 20 to 22 trucks. with enormous pressure pumps and a tangle of enormous hoses that are the fracture sets with which fracking is done.

Once this second stage is completed, the wells can now be put into production, logically after being connected to some network. And the usual thing is that In the first years only one head was seen, since due to the pressure of the well itself, the gas and oil reached the surface alone.

When the wells add years and When they lose pressure, the classic “storks” appear, which are autonomous pumping devices.which, as their name suggests, pump gas and oil, and which They are no different from those used in conventional ones.

Why Vaca Muerta is so important

A little more than a year after the first Vaca Muerta wells were completed, today it is key for the country. First, because of those handful of areas -which could be more because the surface remains- More than 60% of the gas and 55% of the oil in the entire country are already extracted.

If Argentina did not have that gas and oil production, today not only would it not have the income from exports what are being done, yesbut it should allocate billions of dollars a year to import both gas and oil, since without Vaca Muerta national production would not be enough for domestic consumption (something that happens with gas but due to lack of pipes).

But The most important thing about Vaca Muerta is its ability to continue growing and provide much more gas and oil, which could generate exports of up to 40 billion dollars annually. And currently only 10% of Vaca Muerta is developed.

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