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Argentines try to stop oil and gas exploration off ‘The Happy’ tourist coast

Organizaciones ambientalistas presentan amparo y medida cautelar contra el Estado Argentino, la Secretaría de Energía de la Nación y el Ministerio de Ambiente de la Nación, por la aprobación de la exploración petrolera offshore en el Mar Argentino, y piden que se declare la inconstitucionalidad y nulidad de la Resolución 436/2021 que aprueba la realización del proyecto de exploración sísmica en los bloques CAN 100, 108 y 114, por su afectación al mar, a la biodiversidad y al clima.

  • An authorization to explore for hydrocarbons in Argentine waters has the cities and towns along the coast of Buenos Aires province on edge.
  • Prospecting using shots of compressed air is a threat to the hearing systems of cetaceans and other marine mammals, experts say; the possibility of spills also concerns those in the tourism industry.
  • Protests in the streets and an unresolved legal conflict have delayed the start of some exploratory projects that could begin in October.

In Argentina, the name of the city of Mar del Plata is synonymous with beaches, vacations, happiness, activity, rest and enjoyment. For this reason, it has long been known as La Ciudad Feliz (“The Happy City”) or simply La Feliz (“The Happy”). The reasons for the city’s success lie in its geography. It is an exceptional place along the vast 1,200-kilometer (745-mile) coastline of Buenos Aires province because this is where the Tandilia mountain range, one of the oldest in the world, creates an elevated landscape that offers attractive views of the sea. This contrasts with the rest of the province’s coastline, which is dominated by wide, monotonous plains.

However, for more than a year, La Feliz has borne an expression of disgust and concern. On Dec. 30, 2021, the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development authorized the companies Equinor (Norway), Shell (the Netherlands) and YPF (an Argentine energy company) to conduct seismic prospecting for oil and natural gas in three areas of the Northern Argentine Basin located within Argentina’s exclusive economic zone, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) away from the beaches that receive millions of tourists every summer.

The authorization also includes the construction of an exploratory well, called Argerich-1, in one of the areas.

Between December and February of both 2022 and 2023, tourists and residents took to the streets of Mar del Plata in protest. They are shown here in front of the city’s emblematic local casino. Image by Diego Izquierdo for Greenpeace.

This authorization shook the spirit of the city, which is Argentina’s sixth-most populous, with 685,000 residents. It also began a long dispute that is still ongoing in the judicial system, the media and the streets. “Clearly, this is a business that has no social validation in Mar del Plata nor in the rest of the region,” said Alejandra Pastor, an international surfing judge and instructor who serves as secretary of the NGO Surfrider Argentina.

The response to the government’s decision was immediate. In January 2022, La Feliz served as the main setting for the “Atlanticazo,” an enormous popular demonstration that would be repeated a year later as an expression of opposition to the proposed project to build oil platforms in the sea.

Although these platforms will not be visible from the coast, experts say they could constitute a dangerous hotspot of oil spills and dramatically affect tourism, which is the main axis of the region’s economy. Additionally, according to these experts, the oil platforms could put marine species and natural spaces in danger.

“On its own, seismic prospecting is a very harmful activity because it involves underwater acoustic bombardments, which have a very negative impact on the lives of marine fauna, especially on mammals that depend mainly on their hearing to move and develop,” said Luisina Vueso, director of the oceans campaign for the Argentine branch of the NGO Greenpeace. “In addition, the possible drilling would be located in front of the continental shelf of the Argentine Sea, a very productive, vulnerable and sensitive area that we must protect,” Vueso said.

An authentic ‘supermarket of the sea’

The Argentine continental shelf, which extends along 4,725 km (about 2,936 mi) of coastline, not including the country’s claimed Antarctic sector, and occupies an area of 3.7 million km2 (about 1.4 million mi2), is recognized as a particularly rich oceanographic area. The combination of winds, tides and hot and cold currents causes differences in salinity and temperature that favor an increase in nutrients, which then attract thousands of species and are the basis for complex food webs.

These circumstances grow in intensity along the limits of the continental shelf, where the depth abruptly drops from 200 meters (about 656 feet) to 4,000 meters (about 13,123 feet). This is where the oil and gas deposits are believed to be, and prospecting is the essential first step in confirming these suspicions before the drilling begins.

Concessions for hydrocarbon exploration (in red) overlap with areas considered relevant for biological diversity (in blue). Image courtesy of “Seismic prospecting: Risks and impacts in the Argentine Sea” by the Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonian Sea and Areas of Influence.

Cecilia Nicolini, Argentina’s secretary of climate change, sustainable development and innovation, told Mongabay Latam that obtaining gas in this way is not an adequate response to climate change. “We understand that the development of gas obtained from offshore activity or from the eventual exportation of hydrocarbons do not provide a long-term response to climate change,” Nicolini said. However, she justified the activity, saying “the energy transition cannot be done in a day.” According to Nicolini, “the use of these resources is one way to obtain the foreign currency that the country needs in order to implement the measures that allow us to achieve our climate commitments.”

By contrast, Vueso said she believes new wells should not be opened: “It is very concerning that a policy is being carried out that extends the hydrocarbon frontier toward the sea — even more so if it is affecting places where species from many parts of the Atlantic come to feed — and it is putting biodiversity and the ecosystem services provided by the ocean at risk.”

The Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonian Sea and Areas of Influence is a network of 25 civil society organizations that are active in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Chile, including BirdLife International, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Argentine Wildlife Foundation and the Humpback Whale Institute. In 2022, the network released a comprehensive report indicating that many animals live in this area, either permanently or while traveling through on their migration routes: 900 mollusc species, 400 bony fish species, 105 cartilaginous fish species, 48 marine mammal species — including sea lions, elephant seals, seals, dolphins, sperm whales and the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) — and three sea turtle species. Having such a high concentration of fauna puts the seismic prospecting procedure at the center of the discussion.

Sounds that complicate the behavior of marine fauna

The prospecting system consists of launching shots of compressed air at intervals of about 10 or 20 seconds from a row of 12-48 pipes being dragged by the prospecting ship at a depth of between 4 and 10 meters (about 13-33 feet). This violent release of air creates intense acoustic pulses. These pulses generate sound waves that travel through the water and penetrate the seabed. There, they move across the various geological formations they encounter, are reflected off of the marine subsoil and then travel the opposite direction, from the seafloor to the surface, where they are captured by hydrophones the ship tows on cables several kilometers long. The seismic ship’s on-board computers process this information and produce images of the seafloor and the marine subsoil allowing researchers to examine their structure and contents.

A diagram of a prospecting operation. The ship pulls the pipes, the navigation buoy, and the hydrophones that capture the sound waves. Image courtesy of “Seismic prospecting: Risks and impacts in the Argentine Sea” by the Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonian Sea and Areas of Influence.

“What matters is not only the number and layout of the pipes, but also the frequency with which the shots [of compressed air] are released,” said biologist Andrea Michelson, coordinator of the Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonian Sea and Areas of Influence. “These are extreme sound levels of about 250 decibels that discharge every 10 seconds,” she said. In comparison, an airplane taking off generates about 110 decibels of sound, and any sound of over 120 decibels may cause hearing loss in humans. Michelson added that these sound levels “overlap with the rest of the sounds that already exist in the sea,” which could cause serious hearing damage for marine species.

Contrary to what many people assume, the underwater environment is far from silent. Physical factors like wind, rain, ice and even earthquakes create their own sounds. Added to these are the sounds caused by machinery and other human activities. The seismic prospecting pipes add even more noise to a setting in which it is essential to avoid disrupting the typical sounds too much. “These are not isolated impacts but rather cumulative and synergistic. [This is] an aspect that I do not believe has been taken into account with a corresponding [amount of] emphasis,” said Michelson.

An animal’s distance from the source of a sound affects the impact and the nature of the harm that it can cause. Image courtesy of “Seismic prospecting: Risks and impacts in the Argentine Sea” by the Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonian Sea and Areas of Influence.

“[A] wide variety of marine organisms use sound for several biological functions: feeding, reproduction, socialization, parental care, recognition of their young, evaluation of the environment, detection of prey and predators, orientation, navigation, communication between individuals, etc.,” states the report by the Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonian Sea and Areas of Influence.

The emergence of new sounds can interfere with the behavior of fish and marine mammals, experts say. “The effects on the auditory systems of fish and mammals are physiological, biological and behavioral,” Vueso said. “They begin to avoid the feeding areas where the shots [of compressed air] are discharged, they become stressed, and if the repetition causes a permanent disability, it can result in the stranding and death of individuals.”

In fact, one of the disadvantages of using these methods is that their consequences are not immediate, which makes it impossible to measure the incidence of mortality produced in the medium term by hearing damage.

Whales and hake missing for an entire year

For their part, the companies that were awarded the concessions — and the Argentine government — described the precautions that will be taken and minimized the potential harm.

The latest update on the environmental impact study conducted by Serman, a consulting firm, for the oil company Equinor stated that the southern right whale “presents a moderate to high sensitivity in the face of the project, mainly due to its estimated hearing range overlapping with the main range of frequencies of the proposed seismic activity.” The study also determined that “the acute exposure [of that group of cetaceans] to noises at a short distance generates spatial displacements that generally persist for as long as the noise is maintained.” However, it concluded that “regardless of the potential existence of long-term effects, it is believed that marine mammals develop a reaction of directly and immediately avoiding the sources of the sounds.”

A table shows the amount of overlap between natural or anthropogenic sound levels in the sea and the hearing ranges of some species. Image courtesy of “Seismic prospecting: Risks and impacts in the Argentine Sea” by the Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonian Sea and Areas of Influence.

Vueso explained what happened in the past: “In 2009, the company Pan-American [Pan American Energy] conducted seismic prospecting tasks in the San Jorge Gulf, and the artisanal hake fishers could not work for a year because the fish disappeared. The same thing happened with whales. No one saw any during that time period. I’m not saying that they died, but they did not return.”

In terms of the prospecting itself, the environmental impact study indicated that it would have a “soft start,” which meant the seismic pulse would gradually increase for at least 20 minutes until it reached its maximum strength. The study also said that three marine fauna observers — situated on the highest point of the ship conducting the prospecting — would use binoculars to ensure that “the marine organisms abandon the area” at least a half-hour before the shots of compressed air reached their maximum strength. A passive acoustic monitoring operator (without direct sight of the sea) would support the process from inside the ship.

Routes traveled by single whales that have been tagged with transmitters, in Argentine waters and beyond. Image courtesy of Seguimiento Satelital de Ballenas and the Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonian Sea and Areas of Influence.

“In every instance of this process, we aim to raise the bar for environmental evaluation, even above international standards,” said Nicolini, the secretary of climate change, sustainable development and innovation. “Countries like the United Kingdom or Canada set the radius for protecting marine mammals at 500 meters [about 1,640 feet] around where the prospecting is done. In our seismic exploration activities in the area of the Northern Argentine Basin, we have doubled that radius to a kilometer,” Nicolini said.

Fears of spills and doubts about profitability

These differences in opinion extend to other issues. The report by the Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonian Sea and Areas of Influence listed several areas of “high conservation value” located fewer than 250 km (about 155 mi) away from the seismic evaluation project: provincial reserves, biosphere reserves, Ramsar sites, coastal marine protected areas,and significant ecological and biological protected areas. Not too far away is the Agujero Azul (or the “Blue Hole”), which has been nicknamed “the supermarket of the sea,” not only because of the availability of food there, but also because it is an area of oxygen creation, carbon absorption and photosynthesis.

On the other hand, the environmental impact study mentioned that protected marine areas “ban exploratory and productive activities in principle” and explained that “the proximity and potential indirect effects of seismic activities were considered,” without giving more details.

“In these studies, the companies say what they want; they even lie without anyone sanctioning them. There are too many flaws in the regulations,” said Pastor.

A southern right whale. Image courtesy of the Cetacean Conservation Center (CCC).

The risk of oil spills or micro-spills when the drilling begins is another concern. “A recent scientific project gathered information on more than 1,700 acute spills throughout the world that released millions of tons of oil between the 1970s and 2018. However, only 18% of these cases provided information about the effects on wildlife,” Michelson said.

“Equinor, the company leading the project, has had dozens of accidents in Norway and Brazil,” Vueso said.

In terms of the exploration work at the Argerich-1 well, Equinor estimated that underwater or surface spills “are of low probability” in the range of 0.001-0.01% while admitting that “they could potentially affect vulnerable and endangered species in Argentine waters.” According to Nicolini, “in case of a spill from the well, this would not reach the coasts.”

The Argerich-1 well will have a depth of 4,000 meters and will be closed and sealed as soon as the exploration is finished. Most of the drilling to extract hydrocarbons that could take place in the future if the project advances to the exploitation phase will be located at similar depths. The series of difficulties that repairing a potential unforeseen flaw could pose at these depths is also under scrutiny.

Whales. Image courtesy of the Institute for the Conservation of Whales.

For the time being, the Argentine government has only authorized prospecting to verify the existence of hydrocarbons, but a debate is also underway about the true profitability of these hydrocarbons, should they be extracted from the marine subsoil.

“It is expected that the wells installed on the [continental] shelf will be in operation in 2030, the year by which we should have greatly reduced our CO2 emissions,” Michelson said.

“The foreign exchange figures that would be obtained are estimated according to the current price of oil, which is not real because it is conditional upon the sanctions against Russia,” said Vueso.

Neither the companies involved nor the Department of Energy of Argentina agreed to respond to Mongabay Latam’s questions on this issue.

A complex legal battle

With a high degree of citizen participation, all of these issues have invaded the streets of the generally tranquil Atlantic coast of Buenos Aires province. As soon as the authorization to begin the exploration work became public, the social reaction was immediately felt through protests and an ongoing legal battle.

Not even two weeks had passed after the publication of the government’s decision in December 2021 when the federal court of Mar del Plata received four petitions for protection of the court: two individual requests (one of them presented by the city’s mayor) and two collective requests (for an injunction that would suspend the launch of the project). On Feb. 11, 2022, Judge Santiago Martín accepted these requests and suspended any exploratory initiatives. Later, on June 3, the Court of Appeals revoked Judge Martín’s suspension but requested a new environmental impact study from the environment ministry. On Oct. 18, Judge Martín ruled that this new study did not satisfy the requirements, but on Dec. 5, the Court of Appeals overruled him and permitted the exploration. This latest ruling has been appealed before the Supreme Court of Justice, which has not yet ruled on the issue, though this does not impede the beginning of the work.

Environmental organizations protest against the Argentine government, the energy department and the environment ministry over the approval of offshore exploration for oil in Argentine waters. The protesters contend that Resolution 436/2021 — which approves seismic exploration in Blocks CAN 100, 108 and 114 — should be declared unconstitutional and null. This project would affect the sea, biodiversity and the climate.

“The prospecting could begin right now, although to us it seems difficult to do this until October or November, since it is more favorable to do this in summer when the weather changes, the storms diminish and the sea is more calm,” Vueso said.

However, tensions remain high. A journey through any part along the Buenos Aires coast allows one to see walls painted with the words No a las petroleras (or “No to oil companies”) and other slogans in defense of the health of the sea. The protests in front of the courthouses in Mar del Plata are repeated continuously.

“We know that the fight is very unequal and that there are people with much more power than we have who want to do their own business without caring about the common good. But they know that they will have a good part of the society against them, that there will be ongoing demonstrations, and that we will try to put all possible obstacles [in their way]. Maybe this could be the way to prevent the ship from coming and [a way to] end this story,” Pastor said while looking at the sea that she rides almost every day on her surfboard.

Banner image: Environmental organizations exercise their rights in a protest against the Argentine government, the energy department and the environment ministry.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on March 6, 2023.

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