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Argentina's fracking activity in Vaca Muerta slowed to zero in April

Highlights

Fracking stages fell from 430 in March

Oil demand fell by more than a half in April

Fracking recovery hinges on emerging from coronavirus shutdown

Buenos Aires — Fracking activity in Argentina's Vaca Muerta shale play slowed to zero in May, as low demand, low prices and limited storage capacity discouraged new developments, a report showed Tuesday.

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The number of fracking stages in the play was down from 430 in March and 350 in April 2019, according to data compiled by Houston-based services company NCS Multistage.

The pullback in activity came as the federal government locked down the economy on March 20 in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

With most businesses out of action and the 45 million population under strict stay-at-home orders, oil demand fell by more than a half to around 200,000 b/d, according to most estimates. This led refiners to scale back crude runs as diesel and gasoline demand fell by 60% to 80%, the estimates show.

Onshore storage capacity soon filled, forcing producers to shut wells and scale back drilling activity.

While a few companies have hired tankers to store crude offshore or exported surplus production, a plunge in international oil prices and demand has not been enough to keep up production.

Production from Vaca Muerta, one of the world's biggest shale plays, likely plunged in April, the first full month of the quarantine, which has been extended several times to a latest proposed end date of May 10. No official data is yet available for production in the play in April, however.

The play produced a record 123,422 b/d of shale oil in March, according to the Department of Energy, Mining and Hydrocarbons in Neuquen, a province home to most of the play in northern Patagonia.

SLOW RECOVERY SEEN

It could take awhile for fracking activity to return to previous levels. The lack of storage capacity, closed wells and low demand "is a combo that will make recovery very slow," said Luciano Fucello, who runs NCS' business in Argentina.

Mexico City-based Vista Oil & Gas, for example, said it has shut in its shale oil production at its first development block in Vaca Muerta, preferring instead to keep down costs and preserve cash during the period of low demand.

It is uncertain how long it will take for demand to recovery. A lot hinges on the quarantine, which could yet be extended from May 10 if COVID-19 cases continue to mount. The pandemic has left 4,887 people affected and 260 dead since the first case was confirmed at the start of March, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University's Coronavirus Resource Center.

"We are all concerned about the economy, but we are more concerned about people's health," Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez said late Monday on a local cable news network. "I don't want urgency to infect many people. That is what I'm trying to avoid," he said, adding that the idea is to gradually lift the quarantine "so that normality returns."

On April 26, his government started allowing more businesses to start up again and people to go out more. This helped increase diesel and gasoline demand in the last week of April, Production Minister Matias Kulfas, who oversees energy affairs, said last week.

Fernando Meiter, CEO of energy research firm TNS Latam, said he does not expect fracking activity to pick up until after the health crisis, but warned that there are other hurdles. The country is at risk of defaulting on $65 billion in foreign debts on May 22, which would cut companies off from the low-cost financing they need to develop Vaca Muerta.

"You have to resolve the debt," he said. "You can't think of investment when the country is on the verge of default."

Vaca Muerta, which is being developed by majors like Chevron, Shell and Total as well as local companies including state-backed YPF and BP-backed Pan American Energy, has been driving a recovery in the country's oil production from a 28-year low of 479,000 b/d in 2017. The country's total oil output reached 518,468 b/d in March, up 3.2% year on year, according to data from the national Energy Secretariat.