DEAD COW IN lively search for oil

1213MEM_CoverThere’s a lot about the Magellanic Penguins living in Patagonia that is fascinating. Part of it is their cool designation; they’re named after Ferdinand Magellan who first spotted the little critters in 1519. Another has to do with their happy feet. These penguins have been known to wander from the southern coast of Argentina all the way to southern Brazil.

When one of my cousins was over from Argentina a few weeks ago, we began to plan our visit to these penguins and other native wildlife. Recently, there’s been a lot of interest in Patagonia, if not to ogle the spectacular natural landscape, then to put a stake—or drilling pipe—in the ground
and dig for oil.

According to a report this year from the Energy Information Administration, the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Energy, Argentina’s Vaca Muerta shale oil and shale gas field in the Neuquén region is one of the largest of its kind in the world. It might turn out that Vaca Muerta—which translates to dead cow—may well replace Argentina’s vast beef production as the country’s main source of economic strength. Of course that’s contingent on overcoming major political obstacles, since President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner hasn’t exactly been kind to foreign investors. Nonetheless, Chevron, viewing the region’s immense bounty, is pushing on and making some headway with Queen Cristina, as the president’s detractors have nicknamed her.

Besides the politics, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, remains as controversial among critics in Argentina as in the U.S. Concerns range from contaminated groundwater to the atmospheric impact of the equipment that’s used in the process, which occurs when chemical-laced water and sand are blasted underground to break apart rock and release gas.

There are nuances to the entire gas exploration and production process that even those in the midst of the debate often confuse the facts. In our cover story, “Fracturing Rocks to Unlock New Oil,” on page 24, we sort out how the process works and bring some clarity. An adjoining article, “Home on the Shales” reported by Bridget Mintz Testa, places us in Texas—one of the most robust states for hydraulic fracturing in the U.S.—and in the middle of a storm over the technology.

But no matter which side of the hydraulic fracturing frenzy you’re on, the industry is becoming more efficient as technology is getting better and companies more adept at using it. In March, ASME will try to unlock the answers to some of the questions surrounding hydraulic fracturing and related well drilling when it launches its first Energy Forum Live event, “Shale Development and Hydraulic Fracturing—Capturing Unconventional Opportunities.”

The conference is scheduled for California, far from Patagonia and any penguin sightings. It’s not likely I’ll be visiting the Magellanics before March, but it won’t be for lack of prodding from frequent contributor Lee Langston. (Langston’s article this month on the Blackbird, a supersonic reconnaissance aircraft and its revolutionary engine, takes us behind the scenes of the acclaimed Lockheed Skunk Works division, which developed it.)

Besides his passion and knowledge of gas turbines, Langston is an accomplished traveler who has visited the southernmost tip of South America several times. When we chat, he always leaves me craving to hear the bellows of the charismatic penguins of Patagonia. Much as those searching the shale hunger after the sight of oil.

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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

December 2013
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