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Vaca Muerta

Vaca Muerta: A Complete Guide

The Vaca Muerta formation is a world-class shale play with the second largest shale gas reserves and fourth largest shale oil reserves worldwide. As a relatively new shale play, it has seen explosive production growth over the last decade, propelling Argentina forward as a net exporter of oil and LNG. The following sections provide a complete overview of the formation, emerging trends, concessions and geography, as well as a list of frequently asked questions.

Vaca Muerta Overview

 

In Spanish, Vaca Muerta means “dead cow.” It was named by American geologist, Charles E. Weaver, after visiting the Neuquén Basin in 1931. It is located in west Argentina’s northern Patagonia region, primarily in the Neuquén province, with a small portion of the formation extending into the Mendoza province.

Neuquén Basin Essential Information

Covering a surface area of about 46,000 square miles (120,000 km2), the Neuquén Basin is a series of sedimentary formations mostly in Argentina’s Neuquén Province. It originates in the Jurassic time period and developed through alternating continental, marine and depositional conditions into the Tertiary period. The Neuquén Basin is bounded on the northeast by the San Rafael Block and to the east by the Sierra Pintada System. On the basin’s western boundary is the Andean Volcanic Belt and to the southeast is the North Patagonian Massif.

The first wells were drilled in the Neuquén Basin in 1918, with the primary producing formations being the Vaca Muerta, Agrio and Los Molles Formations.

What is the Vaca Muerta?

With a maximum thickness of more than 4,000 feet (1,220 meters), the Vaca Muerta is a geological formation of the Neuquén Basin that holds an estimated 16.2 billion barrels of oil and 308 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Although other areas of the Neuquén Basin have been heavily developed, this formation has only recently been targeted, with development beginning in the Loma Campana area in 2011. Benchmarked against other world class shale reserves like the Permian Basin, it meets the criteria of a good shale play, including organic rich source rock, overpressured reservoirs, favorable thermal characteristics, porosity, permeability and kerogen type.

What Natural Resources are in the Vaca Muerta?

The expansive formation is part of the greater Neuquén Basin in western Argentina. The region’s natural resources include virgin forests, water resources, shale oil, shale gas and conventional hydrocarbon reserves. Beginning in 2019, Argentina began exporting crude oil and liquified natural gas (LNG) as the prolific formations of the basin were developed. The older wells of the Neuquén Basin’s El Trapial field also produce large volumes of carbon dioxide that is repurposed for CO2 flooding in enhanced oil recovery.

Vaca Muerta Oil Production

The first unconventional exploration well was drilled in the Loma La Lata field in 2010. Despite the 2020 global pandemic and demand imbalance, Vaca Muerta production has skyrocketed 600% in the last 5 years, while overall production in Argentina declined by 5%. Argentina’s national oil company, YPF, and Loma Campana joint venture partner Chevron, lead production with 45,000 barrels per day. In March 2020, oil production set a new record high of 123,000 barrels per day, and with current drilling and production momentum continuing to increase, it is expected that a new 150,000 barrels per day record could be reached by the end of 2021. Production from the formation accounts for 43% of Argentina’s total oil production and 60% of its natural gas output.

Vaca Muerta Concessions and Blocks

To assist YPF  in developing its world class oil and gas reserves, concessions are awarded to foreign energy companies to operate in specified areas of the Vaca Muerta. Concessions are typically held for 35 years before expiring. Concessions can be thought of as extended leases that provide rights to drill, explore and produce oil and gas. The most well-known concession is a joint venture between YPF and Chevron in the Loma Campana field, with each company holding 50% interest.

Concessions are divided further into blocks. 39 blocks have been explored or actively developed accounting for approximately 30% of the available acreage. These include Narambuena, Bajo del Choique-La Invernada, Los Toldos I Sur, Los Toldos II Oeste, Aguada Pichana, Sierras Blancas, Cruz de Lorena, Coiron Amargo Sur Oeste, San Roque, Rincón La Ceniza, Bajada de Añelo and La Escalonada.

Vaca Muerta Stratigraphy

The Vaca Muerta shale is a continuous reservoir of shale oil and gas from the late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous periods. At a depth of approximately 9,500 feet (2,900 meters), the formation is primarily comprised of marl with mature black shales, marls and lime mudstones. It varies in thickness from 100 feet to 4,000 feet (30 meters to 1,220 meters), with an average thickness of 1,300 (396 meters).

Vaca Muerta Map

The Vaca Muerta formation of the Neuquén Basin spans approximately 38,600 square miles (100,000 km2). The acreage covers much of the Neuquén province, as seen in the map, with a southern extension into Mendoza province.

Historical and Emerging Targets in the Vaca Muerta

Development of the formation did not commence at scale until 2011, however, the El Trapial field directly to the northeast has been targeted for decades with more than 1,000 wells drilled, albeit legacy vertical production requiring water and CO2 flooding. The epicenter of the Vaca Muerta shale boom, Loma Campana, continues to dominate production in the region with an increasing number of concessions and blocks being rapidly developed. Some producers have begun exploring the potential of Vaca Muerta as an unconventional target in the El Trapial field, where only a few wells have been drilled to the depth of the Vaca Muerta formation. Emerging targets in the region also include the continental deposits of the Tordillo and Sapo formations, which the Vaca Muerta overlies.

Vaca Muerta Rig Count

Oil and gas price recovery continues to push rig count beyond 20, nearing a pre-pandemic lockdown high of 30. Rig count is expected to increase further as more concessions are awarded in the region and additional blocks are developed.

Vaca Muerta Oil and Gas Companies

More than 30 producers are currently target the formation including Pampa Energia, Pan American Energy, ExxonMobil, Tecpetrol, Retama Argentina, Shell, Equinor and Total. However, Vaca Muerta natural gas production has declined steadily since 2019, when output reached a record 1.11 BCF, largely due to domestic demand decrease and natural gas price caps imposed by the government.
San-Andres Stratigraphy Map, Delaware Basin, Midland Basin & Central Basin Platform

Pipelines of the Vaca Muerta Basin

As a relatively new shale play, Vaca Muerta’s midstream infrastructure is racing to catch up to record-setting oil production. Current pipeline systems include Oleoductos del Valle S.A., which transports crude to the Bahía Blanca Refinery, Oiltanking-Ebytem S.A. storage facility and YPF‘s Plaza Huincul Refinery. Many pipelines have been proposed and are in review including the Transportadora Gas del Centro Pipeline that will run 646 miles (1,040 kilometers) to Buenos Aires, and the Brazil pipeline that would run 1,430 miles (2,300 kilometers) to the AES Uruguaiana power plant in Uruguaiana, Brazil, with additional sections taking Vaca Muerta natural gas deeper into the country.

Cities of the Vaca Muerta

Cities and towns involved in supporting Vaca Muerta oil and gas production span the Neuquén province. Here are the top 10 cities and towns by population.
City/Town Population Surface Area
Neuquén 231,198 49 square miles (128 km2)
Cutral Có 35,465 31 square miles (81 km2)
Centenario 32,928 106 square miles (274 km2)
Plottier 32,390 21 square miles (55 km2)
Zapala 32,097 175 square miles (452 km2)
San Martín de los Andes 23,519 50 square miles (129 km2)
Plaza Huincul 13,532 1.5 square miles (3.9 km2)
Chos Malal 13,092 34 square miles (88 km2)
Aluminé 4,862 18 square miles (46 km2)
Piedra del Águila 3,689 113 square miles (292 km2)

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are frequently asked questions about the Vaca Muerta shale play and brief answers.

What is Vaca Muerta shale?

Vaca Muerta shale is a continuous sedimentary formation in the Neuquén Basin containing the fourth largest reserves of shale oil and second largest reserves of shale gas in the world.

Who is producing in Vaca Muerta?

Argentina’s national oil company, Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (YPF), is the largest producer of oil and gas in the Vaca Muerta, with the vast potential of the formation attracting joint venture partners including Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, Total and many other leading energy companies.

Who is being hired to do the fracking in Vaca Muerta?

Much of the hydraulic fracturing operations are being conducted by YPF, however, growing well count requires increasing reliance on service providers to complete the shale play’s increasing number of horizontal wells.

Where is the Vaca Muerta in Argentina located?

The formation is part of the Neuquén Basin, which is located in Argentina’s western Neuquén and Mondoza provinces, and situated in northern Patagonia.

How many wells have been fracked in Vaca Muerta?

More than 500 wells have been drilled in the formation, with about 40% completed with hydraulic fracturing, as operators switched from vertical to horizontal wells in 2016.