Journey to the heart of Vaca Muerta, the treasure buried in the middle of the desert

By , in Industry on .

The Patagonian steppe scrapes. The cold wind punishes early, swirls the dry earth and shakes the low bushes and thick leaves that grow on both sides of the route, partly paved and partly gravel.

We are in the middle of the desert, but the morning traffic is intense. Trucks, buses and trucks four by four travel the hundred kilometers between Neuquén and Añelo in just over two hours. Engineers, geologists and operators of different nationalities, who work for the oil companies and for the oil service multinationals that provide equipment and technical assistance, travel this route in search of buried treasure three kilometers deep.

In that vast nothing stands one of the eleven drilling equipment that has deployed YPF in Vaca Muerta, in the Loma Campana field. It is a giant drill, 30 meters high, which works 24 hours to make a well of 15 centimeters in diameter and almost 6000 meters in length.

“We are literally above Vaca Muerta, which is 3000 meters below us,” says Gustavo Astie, Manager of the Non Conventional Regional YPF, in Loma Campana, the main facility of the oil company in the area. It is the main responsible for unearthing the hydrocarbons that have been hidden underground for more than 150 million years.

Vaca Muerta is an extension of 30,000 square kilometers. It hosts the fourth world unconventional oil reserve in the world, behind Russia, the United States and China. And the second largest in the world of gas, behind China. If until six years ago it was a promised land, since 2012 it began to become a reality. YPF and its partners in different projects (Chevron in Loma Campana, Dow in El Orejano and others) have invested almost 10 billion dollars in six years.

The results begin to be noticed. Currently, unconventional oil and gas extracted from these depths account for 20 percent of the company’s production.

Loma Campana is an oil field that is jointly exploited by YPF and Chevron, the first international partner to step on Vaca Muerta. Here, 40,500 barrels of oil were produced in the first quarter of the year. In El Orejano, a gas field, 7.9 million cubic meters of gas were extracted. Production is constantly increasing and unconventional oil production already reaches 50,000 barrels, according to Astie. These are the two deposits that are in the development phase, operational, although there are others in the initial phases. The third deposit from which hydrocarbons are already extracted and sold is Fortín de Piedra, of Tecpetrol (Techint).

YPF has almost half of Vaca Muerta under concession: 12,000 square kilometers. Only in Loma Campana, expects to reach 100,000 barrels per day of oil. According to the company’s plans, unconventional crude production will reach 223,000 barrels per day in 2023. Production equals “an entire YPF,” says Astie. In gas, the goal is 25 million cubic meters per day. “It’s half YPF more,” he adds. With these levels of production, Argentina would become a net exporter of oil and gas.

The pelita
“We have a word in Spanish for shale. It’s called pelita, but it’s less fun, “says Guillermina Sagasti, a geologist who started working at Vaca Muerta almost a decade ago. The shale or pelita is the rock that was formed 150 million years ago and for about three million years. It is a rock of very fine grain, little permeable.

The rock is opaque, a dark gray color. Here – down there – there was sea and now there are fossil remains like the ammonite, a cephalopod that lived before the dinosaurs.

“It is necessary to generate permeability channels, that’s why it breaks through stimulation,” explains Sagasti. To extract the resource you have to break the rock, generate fractures, stimulate with water and sand and, finally, pump.

A well of 6000 meters
The complex process requires a much more expensive investment than conventional crude extraction. The rental of drilling equipment can cost up to $ 1600 per hour.