In July 2013 oil giant Chevron and the Argentine YPF oil company signed an agreement opening the door to massive exploitation of shale oil and gas in one of the most biodiverse regions of the Patagonian steppe (Chehebar et al., 2013, Valoración de sitios para la conservación de la biodiversidad en la estepa y el monte de Patagonia, Administración de Parques Nacionales de Argentina–WCS–TNC, Buenos Aires). This region is home to the most genetically distinct (Cossios et al., 2012, Endangered Species Research, 283–294) population of the most threatened cat species of the Americas, the Andean mountain cat Leopardus jacobita. The species was thought to be restricted to high Andean habitats until it was discovered in Argentina's northern Patagonian steppe at 650 m altitude in 2008 (Novaro et al., 2010, Cat News, 8–10). The entire currently known range of the Patagonian Andean cat lies atop the Vaca Muerta shale reserve, recently identified as one of the world's largest deposits of shale gas and oil.
During the last few decades this arid region, experiencing a trend of increasing dryness as a result of global climate change, produced 50% of Argentina's gas and oil through conventional extraction. Shale deposits must be extracted through the unconventional method of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). At least 377 unconventional wells have already been drilled and at least 2,500 additional wells were expected by 2018. However, development stalled after the re-nationalization of YPF in 2012, which had been bought by the Repsol company in the 1990s. YPF owns about one-third of the oil concessions for Vaca Muerta but lacked the funds for extensive development of fracking. The controversial agreement with Chevron will initially provide USD 1.24 billion to develop 100 fracking wells and eventually USD 17 billion to jointly develop an additional 1,500 fracking wells (S. Romero & C. Krauss, 2013, An odd alliance in Patagonia, New York Times, 21 October). Other international companies also have concessions within Vaca Muerta. The French company Total has requested permission for fracking within a provincial protected area (Auca Mahuida) that probably harbours the Andean cat and is home to a breeding population of the threatened Andean condor Vultur gryphus and several endemic species of lizards.
In Argentina environmental impact statements and mitigation are currently required only for individual wells. These local impact statements are inappropriate for evaluating and minimizing effects on biodiversity in general and on the rare, wide-ranging Andean cat in particular. Cumulative effects of hundreds of wells will affect not only these cats and the area's other unique wildlife but also Patagonia's largest agricultural region, renowned especially for its fruits and wines, and the more than one million people that live downstream in Patagonia's largest human population.
In the USA, after years of extensive expansion of fracking, scientists are calling for research on its cumulative effects on biodiversity (Souther et al., 2013, Letter from Society for Conservation Biology to the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, and Department of Interior. www.conbio.org/policy/scb-requests-additional-research-on-the-impacts-of-fracking-on-biodiversity). The Wildlife Conservation Society Argentina held a workshop in November 2012 that brought together extractive companies and government agencies for the first time to discuss the need to evaluate and address proactively the potential cumulative effects of fracking and other extractive activities on Patagonian Andean cats and other species. A strategic assessment of the effects of oil and mining projects on biodiversity, coupled with consensual planning for mitigation and compensation, could ensure that consequences are fully considered and responsibly addressed at the earliest stages of the development of this controversial method of hydrocarbon extraction. In a historical first step government and industry representatives reached a consensus at the November workshop on the need for such a process.
However, in response to protests by environmentalists, government and industry officials publicly state that there are no negative environmental effects of fracking and that the province's monitoring plan based on local effects of individual wells is sufficient for protection of the environment (R. Esquivel, Neuquén Secretary of the Environment, No hay alteraciones ambientales, Diario Río Negro, 12 October 2013). The future of the recently discovered Patagonian Andean cat may now depend on the willingness of politicians and companies to acknowledge the uncertainty about the effects of fracking, accept responsibility to consider and address cumulative effects, and set an example for other regions where shale oil and gas deposits are being discovered, by carrying out and implementing a strategic plan to minimize and mitigate effects of fracking in Vaca Muerta on biodiversity and the environment.