Living in Vaca Muerta Shale Fields: the young faces of a new Argentine dream

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AÑELO, Neuquén.-“this is Vaca Muerta”. Juan Carlos Pais points his gaze towards a labyrinth of steel pipes installed in the middle of the desert. Giant and colourful, similar to the Pompidou Museum in Paris, the gas compressor plant moans loudly nearby. The engineer, who oversaw Pharaonic works in different parts of the world, feels a special pride for this. “it will be a memorable story. tell them that in Buenos Aires ”

This is Vaca Muerta,  rock that sinks to three thousand meters of depth that was conceived in the Jurassic period and extends below Neuquén, part of Mendoza, Río Negro and La Pampa. One hundred and fifty million years were needed for the seabed to become the second largest gas reservoir and the unconventional fourth in the World’s Oil. supply of the thirty thousand square kilometres that it covers, a surface similar in size to Belgium. Only two per cent have been exploited in a massive way. A buried jewel. Between valves that open and close, chisels that rummage in the bowels of the earth guarded by towers of fifty meters of height implanted in the middle of nowhere, work the men and women who bet on Vaca Muerta shale reserves.

They are geologists, engineers, petrophysicals, operators hired by oil service companies and those who sleep alongside the new wells. Part of the human resource that strives to extract energy from the rock. To reach the hot zone of Vaca Muerta you have to take Provincial Route 7 that links Neuquén with Añelo. Danger. High Voltage. Danger. flammable. At the roadside, the warnings are Constant. The rhythm is hectic and led by monumental trucks loaded with four tippers, they carry water and sand to make the fracking possible, the hydraulic stimulation necessary to fracture the generating rock that is Vaca Muerta When you reach Añelo you will see a white cross and a legend: “San Cayetano”. From all over the world, alone or with their families, the pilgrims arrive at the capital of the Argentine shale following the route of the Black Gold. In search of what they do not get beyond where they come: work and a future.

At 11 am, in the combi that goes to the lower field of Palo, is bouncing along with the rest of his team Gastón Remy, the CEO of Vista Oil & Gas. The road becomes gravel and the dust goes up the back seats. Remy looks at the fences-the Neuquen slopes of Sharp Edges-and says he loves them. It can be hard to convince investors to bet on something that is buried and they can’t see it, but Remy has an arsenal of images, numbers and projections to make the invisible tempting. It speaks of the earth pierced like a gruyere cheese and of towers of the last generation that arrive separated and then are to be assembled like Lego. Prior to commanding Vista Oil & Gas and long before being president of Dow for Latin America, Remy had his first job in Neuquén selling Ice Cream. Raised by a medical mother and a father dentist, he is defined as having a Patagonian Heart.

“If There is a history of success and potential in Argentina, then this is it,” says the lawyer, who is 45 yrs and has three children. He returned to his place of birth to bet on the geological treasure that he had never heard of when he was a kid. When stepping on the unconventional oil field, the transformation begins. jackets, boots, helmets, Goggles and gloves for all. No one walks down the pole without overalls. Gustavo Mariezcurrena listen to the security talk a colleague gives. Two horns mean Fire. If the emergency alarm sounds, look at the windsock and run in the opposite direction.

The rules shape the life of Mariezcurrena. Those rules were written in blood. A long time ago, he lost a man on his team. He fell from the tower at a height of over forty metres. Mariezcurrena prefers not to remember things that still hurt. Born and raised in Neuquén, 24 years ago he worked in the union. Son of an oil father, at age, of 7 yrs his father took him to Loma La Lata deposit and stepped onto a trailer for the first time. He liked to see how people worked for one side, for the other. His dad insisted, “you have to study to be a boss.” today, Mariezcurrena is the one in Boca de Pozo, the company man, according to the oil code.

When he entered the Vaca Muerta area, back in 2012, he realized how immense it was. The largest drilling equipment; The biggest tools. You had to start from scratch. Then he worked for YPF, with many of those who now accompany him in Vista. It was his chance to learn how to drill. So he left Mendoza, where he was quietly dedicated to the completion of wells, and went on to strive to pierce the Vaca Muerta. “you don’t know what you’re going to find when you go into a gas zone, the last part, the production. You have to be aware of the dangerous areas. ” Marie Zcurrena, 43 years, brown eyes and tanned skin by the sun and Patagonian wind, always returns to the adjective Bravo. By explaining the attention demanded by the well, he says that each one is Different. He compares them to a son. You have to take care of them night and day. The well does not rest.

The day is divided into two and there are two chiefs in the field, but in the face of a complication-the project can get dangerous and this is where the companionship emerges and the few hours of sleep are forgotten. After two decades in oil, the company man knows how much work has changed. “before, I didn’t care if you knew how to read and write. No one asked you. The only thing that mattered were you ambitious. If they told you to you would throw yourself out there. That was the good. The one that was going to ascend up the corporate ladder. ” He was the good guy and he has three herniated discs. Here we work. With wind, rain, mud and snow. There is no “No.” If you get the night shift, you’re 12 hours awake while everyone rests. “there are people who do not know what it is to work in the oil industry. They don’t know what we’re doing or how we do it. ”

A strong incentive at the time of gambling working for Vaca Muerta was the closeness with his family. Now it’s two hours by car. His wife and the youngest of their six daughters are all waiting for him. He spends seven days with them and then he returns to the well, where his home is a trailer. “it’s a challenge to work in Vaca Muerta. I wanted to be part of what is going to be a focus for the energy production of the country and the project that can bring the country forward. ” Enthusiasm is contagious in Vista Oil & Gas. For Gastón Remy, The challenge involved to stop watching the game from the audience and start playing it on the court: to be the Protagonist if you like. “our generation has a huge responsibility to do things differently and to provoke a change that transcends the government of the day”

Remy was already a key player six years ago. When he was Dow’s President for the Southern Cone he persuaded his bosses to invest in Vaca Muerta alongside YPF. Thus was born El Orejano, which generated the largest non-conventional gas production in the world outside the United States. The lawyer now bets that Vista Oil & Gas, chaired by Miguel Galuccio, triple its production in the next five years. This plan includes drilling more than 150 wells that will require an investment of over Two Billion USD.

“If we are doing well, there is a lot of capital ready to come to Argentina. Today, It will curbs volatility due to not knowing the future. But the potential is enormous. That kind of funds capital is ready to be channelled and what is needed is a leader of the Malón. It is the greatest opportunity for the generation of jobs and investments that Argentina has and the most important in all of Latin America. And it will really transform the country if we manage to do it right, “says Remy.

The right leg of José María Viramonte moves with a nervous tic. In the new YPF geo-navigation room, while speaking on the phone, the Geologist’s heel goes up and down. Viramonte is 39 years old and watches the drilling from kilometres away. I am not happy with the curve that is showing on my screen. “I had my hair standing up” he warns, with a clear Salta accent to which he manages the drill on the set of Aguada de la Arena. “it’s the target –the target–down. Break everything, “he orders.

In the room, wallpapered with large screens, the women, and three men are striving from different disciplines such as geology, geophysics, Petrophysics and Perforation. The goal: when the bit reaches the sweet spot, where they can get more juice (gas and oil) out of the rock. Although the geological formation measures 400 meters thick, they want to drill in the best area, the highest organic content. Monitoring is constant and tiring. Viramonte’s eyes, hugging the thermos in search of water for the mate tea, are bloodshot. The Geo-navigation room is ooen 24 hours. “You have to have at least ten years of experience to be seated here,” clarifies to the head of the room, Fabricio Lima da Silva, the Brazilian, of 42 years, who has worked in different parts of the world.

When he was 13 years old, Viramonte accompanied his father in the campaigns to the North. The man, also a geologist, a senior researcher at the Conicet specializing in volcanology, who taught him the trade. In those ten-hour trips, the father chatted with his colleagues about fascinating things that had happened five hundred million years ago. He listened. I was trying to imagine everything. “Geologists are like forensic doctors of the evolution of the earth,” compares Viramonte, dedicated to the investigation of the age of the rocks until his first son was born, in 2008. The possibility of working at Schlumberger, one of the world’s leading oil service companies, emerged and he took it. His job was to position oil wells.

The voyage began with Neuquén, then two years in Bogotá and another three in Quito, to his last destination, Puerto La Cruz, in Venezuela. With his wife and two first children–then they would come two–began to travel. “it was something new and we had always had that search to know,” says the Salteno, now installed in Neuquén. When he was offered an opportunity to return to Argentina and work in YPF he did not Hesitate. “it was the dream of the kid.” I had always worked in service companies, but now I could be the owner of all the information. ” Vaca Muerta is the biggest challenge for the professionals who work there. At the country level, I am convinced that it is going to be the one that changes the energy matrix. Everything says “Yes”. It is something that is brewing and is unconventional. You have everything to do. It’s a boom that opens. It is recontraatrapante, “the geologist is so enthusiastic.

Viramonte details the peculiarities of Vaca Muerta: “it is a pelita-a rock-which is called shale. It is unconventional because always oil production was made from rocks that are sandstone. A porous rock and, at the same time, permeable. In the pores formed between the grains there is an empty space where the fluid is lodged. You prick these and the oil comes out. What has Vaca Muerta is shale. It is not permeable because the pores are not connected. You can puncture, but nothing will happen because the pores are not connected to each other. You have to fracture them. It is unconventional and that changes everything: from how it is pierced to how it is studied from the petrophysical point of view. ”

Geonavigators, like Viramonte, work under pressure. It may take twenty days to drill the entire well. With the data coming in real time, decisions are made on the go. Thirty meters per hour is the ideal speed with which you drill the bit, the tip of the drill. Everything is an optimization in the mind of Geo-navigators. Viramonte knows: you have to be alert because the changes are in real time. “all-click your fingers–it’s at the moment.”

The door of the company man Mauro Sosa never closes. He is 28 years old, born in Salta in a town called Tartagal and the manager for fourteen days in a row to carry out the operation in the Fortin de Piedra deposit, by Tecpetrol, the energetic arm of Techint. Right now, they’re drilling at five thousand feet deep. Sitting in his white trailer, looking at the screen showing all the parameters inside the well. A man wearing an orange jacket–distinct from the blue one–is approaching and asks for the inclination of the drill piercing. His name is Antonio de Jesús Bernabé and he is from Veracruz, in Mexico. Accepting a mate tea while waiting for the answer. Sosa sticks the info into the computer data. His eyes can look inside the well.

Here the drilling engineer lives with forty people and seven different service companies. The risks are very high. The most punctual is the pressure in the mouth of the well and the manipulation of the keys. One of the most adrenaline-filled situations lived by navigating Vaca Muerta in the highly pressurized areas. Unaccustomed to working with so much pressure on the surface, he could soon see a twenty-metre flame burning in front of him. In seconds he had to bring people together and set up a control plan. “it was impressive,” he says.

Another Interruption. The trailer door opens. once again

-one question: is the density going to start to lift to 1720?

-yes, at 1720, confirms Sosa, without a hint of doubt in his voice. Although a mistake here, as in the geo-browser room, can bury millions of dollars.

For Maria Ximena Díaz, a 26-year-old petroleum engineer, the feeling of being in Vaca Muerta is that she is lucky to be here at the right time and place. She works in Tecpetrol’s Young Professional program and is a partner of Sosa. In Diaz’s fresh face a smile is drawn. ” I just got out of college and this experience is invaluable.” When she wakes up, she never knows what can happen. She likes that uncertainty and having to organize it. Diaz also sleeps in Boca de Pozo and loves her trailer. “it’s like an apartment. It has everything I need. ” She doesn’t mind wearing the Mamluk either, but she had a hard time convincing her mom. You’re going to be down there, she was asking me terrified. “it is because of the prejudice that the field is hostile,” she says, and then clarifies: “everyone respects me very much. The industry is Aggiornando, there are more and more women and they all manage better when we are present. Every morning, at the well, they open the door and let you go First. ” She says that in Neuquén all are aware of the importance of Vaca Muerta . “somehow, everyone is affected by it. In Buenos Aires, instead, they say to you: and how about that Vaca Muerta? ”

“logarithmic”. Thus it defines the growth of the production in stone pillbox the chief of systems and communications of Vaca Muerta. Pablo Escudero lived the last few months under pressure. But not the one the drilling engineers we are talking about. “when this boom came–it refers to the eleven million cubic meters of gas currently produced per day–it was not just work, it was madness.” Squire is 33 years old, is from Monte Grande, and moved to Neuquén along with his wife, Sofia Iturrioz. She is from Cañuelas, is 28 years old and is a systems analyst at the same company. They met at work, married in 2016 and moved to Neuquén. “when I was offered a job to come, I had to clarify my relationship with her. I wanted to come, but with her, “clarifies Squire.

A full bet. The huge challenge of starting over without the family or the usual friends. “it was easier for the people with whom we met. In Neuquén there are many people who are in the same situation as us. Young people who came to work “describes Iturrioz, who develops applications to do everything more efficiently and wears the Jacket as if it were an elegant coat. Her husband is in charge of infrastructure and communications in the Neuquén Basin and Vaca Muerta. When things work well nobody tells them anything; When it works out wrong, they are all complaining to them. “we watch the news on television and we are very proud to have worked each one, from its place, to get ahead. We had to change the paradigm of thought. We were accustomed to work more slowly and suddenly came Vaca Muerta with everything needed tomorrow, “says Iturrioz.

At 20,.00 the company man Sosa is dazzled by the illuminated derrick at night. Nights can be lonely in the wellhead. It’s his third day on duty. He has another eleven days before to go back to Salta, where his girlfriend, master planter, awaits. He always misses the family, but He’s happy with his choice. “there’s so much to learn at the Site. It’s great to be able to work with cutting edge technology and have exceeded our goals. I am proud to be from the beginning in such a big project and help it progress. ”

A blue dot on Provincial Ruta 17. It is Gustavo Espinoza and he walks between columns of dust. He advances by swallowing dust. He agrees to get in the car and have a drink of fresh water. Jacket, Black bag, Shaving Pack and Sunglasses. Espinoza is 38 years old and ready to start work. Until recently he was dedicated to the horticulture but as so many in search of a better future, he left behind his days of the tractor on the farm to launch into the oil industry. I remember when Añelo was a little town suitable to buy some groceries. When I get home, I look towards the road. The endless parade of heavy trucks. “if it doesn’t rain, in the afternoon, it’s worse. Everything is covered in a dust cloud. ” That cloud of dust is a symbol of the thriving activity in this arid land area. It’s the hope of a better future for Gustavo and many other Argentines that creating this employment boom.

Source: La Nacion ( translated )


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