The Guaraní Aquifer is a natural reservoir of fresh water whose surface spreads beyond the borders of four countries: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. It is said that it represents 20% of the world’s freshwater reserves. In February 2012, ANCAP (The National Fuel, Alcohol and Portland Administration) granted US based Schuepbach Energy two contracts for hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation in the Piedra Sola and Salto concessions in Uruguay’s north basin. A few months later, the Australian oil company Petrel Energy bought 25% of Schuepbach Energy, increasing its stake to 51% one year after. According to Petrel’s, both concessions have a potential for unconventional (fracking) and conventional oil exploitation.
Despite the Uruguayan’s Government assertion that fracking isn’t part of the country’s plans for the near future, local citizen assemblies – mostly urban – and environmental organizations on both the Argentinian and Uruguayan sides of the border have initiated a struggle against oil activities in Piedra Sola and Salto concessions. They doubt Government’s goodwill and have been asking for a Law that bans fracking in Uruguay and for an immediate stop to all Petrel – Schuepbach activities in the north basin. Oil reservoirs and shales on both concessions are located under the Guaraní Aquifer and activists fear that exploration activities may open ground for its exploitation through fracking. According to them, this not only puts the aquifer in danger but also threatens the integrity of the nearby Salto Grande hydro dam. In 2014, organized citizens from Concordia, Concepción del Uruguay, Chajarí, Federación and Colón in the Argentinian side of the border detained four trucks carrying equipment for the 2D seismic survey in the Piedra Sola and Salto concessions. The local police purportedly attacked them and some were arrested. Since then, local activists have been very active in denouncing onshore oil exploration through the Citizen’s Assemblies Union (UAC) and have managed to get support from several regional and national environmental associations. As a response to Petrel-Schuepbach drilling activities, these associations summoned hundreds of people who marched to the entry of one of the wells near the small village of Tambores in August 2017.
Two weeks later, they gathered at the city of Salto for the first regional forum in defense of the Guaraní Aquifer. At this moment, they denounced the usage of dangerous chemicals by Petrel-Schuepbach and accused Uruguay’s environmental bureau (DINAMA) of authorizing drilling activities without conducting adequate hearing procedures. Uruguayan legislation doesn’t require a thorough Environmental Impact Assessment for the exploratory activities being conducted. Nonetheless, the environmental report published by the concessionary and ANCAP mentions potential affectations to groundwater, including the Guaraní Aquifer. The participants also agreed to further disseminate their concerns, strengthen their actions and increase pressure on authorities at both sides of the border. Following a 2010 agreement signed by all the countries who share the Guaraní Aquifer – where they pledged to use the resource in a sustainable way and to communicate any relevant information regarding activities that might compromise it – the associations present at the forum asked the Argentinian government to intercede with the Uruguayan counterpart. So far, both local and national awareness brought up by these groups has sparkled a chain of bans on fracking by local municipalities in the Argentinian side of the border. The Entre Ríos province has also sanctioned a Law prohibiting unconventional exploitation of oil and gas. The Uruguayan government has also agreed to a moratorium on fracking, albeit activists aren’t willing to accept anything less than a ban on the procedure.