Delegations from around the world have gathered for the next round of the UN climate talks in Katowice; but what the forum of the world’s 20 largest economies agreed on before that in Argentina was not good news. The collective weight of the G20’s members at the climate talks is likely to encourage opening new fossil fuel deposits at a time when there is an urgent need to scale down fossil fuel extraction. Nowhere is the meaning of this as clear as in Argentina.
After an all-night negotiation session, the G20 leaders agreed on a communique that reaffirmed the commitment of 19 of the 20 to the Paris agreement on climate change while Donald Trump stuck to his climate change denial stance. But it’s clear that no one in the G20 is prepared to do enough to take our economies off fossil fuels fast enough.
New data released during the G20 summit show that these countries are responsible for 76% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The US and China have the largest emissions footprints out of the 20, Argentina the smallest. That should put Argentina in a perfect position to lead the transition to a cleaner economy. Instead, the Argentinian government has pinned its hopes and investment strategies on a fracking project so massive and destructive for the climate that a UN committee recently demanded that Argentina ‘reconsider’ it.
The G20 energy ministers’ communique signed at Bariloche this June emphasised the role of natural gas in ‘bridging’ a transition to a low-carbon economy: ‘We recognise the key role that natural gas currently plays for many G20 countries, and its potential to expand significantly over the coming decades, supporting transitions towards lower emission energy systems. We will endeavour to improve the functioning, transparency and competitiveness of gas markets.’
Argentina seems to have used its presidency as a stage for promoting investment in the oil and gas frontier and working up deals, including with the Trump administration
According to its government under Mauricio Macri, the centrepiece of Argentina’s energy strategy is the Vaca Muerta mega-project – the second biggest shale gas reserve in the world – requiring the dangerous technique hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on a mass scale and containing up to 50 giga tonnes of carbon trapped in the ground. So while claiming to lead the G20 on a sustainability agenda, Argentina seems to have used its presidency as a stage for promoting investment in the oil and gas frontier and working up deals, including with the Trump administration.
‘The technology that has allowed for the shale gas revolution in America, we want to make available to Argentina,’ said US energy minister Rick Perry during the G20 energy ministers meeting in June. Perry promised Argentinian officials to ‘make introductions’ to US pipeline operators and petrochemical companies to get the most out of Argentina’s Vaca Muerta shale deposit, the second biggest reserve of shale gas in the world.
Meanwhile, the US State Department ran workshops in Argentinian municipalities aiming to ‘explore in greater depth the problems and implications associated with non-conventional gas development, as well as the paradigm changes in energy evolution that both nations [Argentina and the US] are experiencing.’ Vince Campos, a US State Department spokesman, said that his department’s programme would ‘share US best practices’ in the energy sector, with contributions from departments of state, interior, treasury, commerce and the US Coast Guard.
Read also Maxime Robin, “Unregulated oil fracking boom does permanent damage”, Le Monde diplomatique, August 2013. To make Argentina’s shale gas more attractive to investors, Macri’s government has slashed labour regulations and regional petroleum fees, and set up a gas supply pricing system that rewards unconventional gas extracted with a price fixed in dollars. Our research shows that Macri’s energy sector reforms have resulted in a massive transfer from the state and energy users towards corporations that drill for oil and gas. The beneficiaries of these subsidies include companies named as some of the biggest corporate carbon emitters of the world: Shell, Chevron, BP and Total.
Our research shows that Macri’s energy sector reforms have resulted in a massive transfer from the state and energy users towards corporations that drill for oil and gas
Local communities in Patagonia, particularly a number of indigenous Mapuche communities, certainly don’t benefit. A recent statement by the UN Committee for Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (UN CESR) sounds a clear human rights warning. In the UN CESCR concluding observations on Argentina’s regular report on human rights – approved by the Committee at its 64th session in October 2018 – the committee expressed concern that about the lack of adequate evaluation of fracking’s negative impacts on the environment and human health, and about the absence of prior consultation with affected local populations.
The Indigenous mapuche community Campo Maripe first protested the lack of free, prior, informed consent for Chevron and YPF’s drilling on their land in 2013. Since then, over 500 wells have been drilled on the community’s territory, and last year for the first time the gendarmería (militarised police) was deployed against the community to block protests and let oil company trucks pass. In March the state permanently deployed 400 gendarmes to ensure security of Vaca Muerta operations.
A recent statement by the Mapuche Confederation of Neuquén – representing a number of affected communities – reads: ‘We have a double responsibility: to defend our communities’ territories that are the sacrifice zones necessary for the “success” of Vaca Muerta, and to mobilize all citizens of Neuquén [Province] to defend their resources, their environment and the common good in the face of the pillage of our collective inheritance.’
The full exploitation of Vaca Muerta’s reserves, the UN CESCR statement notes, ‘would consume a significant percentage of the world’s carbon budget towards the objective of 1.5 degrees global warming’
So this is the business opportunity for which Argentina’s G20 presidency has been a staging ground. And it’s still early days for Vaca Muerta: among 34 licence blocks granted to companies in Neuquén province, only five areas have reached full exploitation stage.
The full exploitation of Vaca Muerta’s reserves, the UN CESCR statement notes, ‘would consume a significant percentage of the world’s carbon budget towards the objective of 1.5 degrees global warming, as stipulated in the Paris Accord.’ The committee concludes by recommending that Argentina ‘reconsider’ the shale oil and gas mega-project.
The Argentinian government and its business partners would do well to heed the UN warnings and reconsider the fracking mega-project; or else they risk endangering Argentinian citizens’ rights, and those of future generations too. Only by taking concrete steps to leave new oil and gas deposits in the ground, phase out existing ones, and invest into clean alternatives at scale, can G20 countries really take responsibility for their huge role in changing the climate.
Fernando Cabrera & Anna Markova