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The National Museum and Research Center of Altamira, located next to the cave itself in Cantabria. (Photograph by José Luis Filpo Cabana/Wikimedia Commons)

Fracking Arrives at the ‘Sistine Chapel’ of Prehistoric Art

On March 31 last year, a region in northern Spain quietly granted a concession of land, dubbed Arquetu, for natural gas exploration.

In Cantabria, the Arquetu traditionally was known as a mythological traveler who carries a coffer full of gold coins and lives an extremely simple lifestyle. Having disappeared from Cantabria’s folklore, now the Arquetu is back. Again, he is foreign, and bears riches, but this time he is surrounded by controversy.

Trofagas, which is owned by the California-based BNK Petroleum, was awarded the six-year concession of 24,876 hectares (61,470 acres) by the regional Government of Cantabria. In the new Arquetu territory, Trofagas will drill at least four wells to search for unconventional natural gas using hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking.’

With its gently rolling landscape, some parts of the concession strikingly resemble Carter County, in Southern Oklahoma, where BNK operates 22 wells. However, there are important differences between the two. The most significant difference is underground. Cantabria’s geology is extremely complex. Some areas are transected by a vast network of underground caves that expands into the neighboring region of Asturias. Those caves can be more than 1,000 meters (3,000 feet) deep, and the entire network, still unexplored, can be hundreds of kilometers long. People from Cantabria and Asturias joke that, if you drop painting in a cave, the water in some river—or in another cave—will become colored.

That geological structure supports a number of critically important archaeological sites. At least four decorated caves from the Paleolithic Age that have been listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO lie within the Arquetu. Among them is the world-famous Altamira Cave which, in 1880, became the first discovery of Prehistoric art, and has been nicknamed ‘the Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic Art’ for the quality and the degree of preservation of its paintings. Surrounding Arquetu are 13 other UNESCO-listed caves, plus other sites, such as El Sidrón, in Asturias, where exceptionally well-preserved Neanderthal remains have been discovered.

Moreover, part of the concession overlaps territories occupied by brown bears. These are the last 130 brown bears genetically “Spanish” (the ones in the Pyrenees have been introduced from Slovenia). They co-exist with the last remaining 500 Cantabrian grouse, a subspecies of the Western Capercaillie that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service classifies as endangered.

Could development activity in Arquetu damage all of these natural and cultural assets? Could the fracking provoke small earthquakes that could damage the caves, as has happened in the United Kingdom and, more recently, in the United States? Could the roads and wells disturb the bears and the grouses, or the fluids and gases poison some of the last rivers in Spain that still have significant populations of Atlantic salmon?

In June, when I visited BNK’s operations in Carter County, the company’s representatives told me that they are ready to change their procedures to enhance safety in their Cantabrian operation. However, environmental groups have petitioned the regional government to halt the operations, and nine Cantabrian municipalities have asked the same — not only because of the potential environmental risk, but also because they were not informed about the concession until it was reported in the media. The government has not responded to the petitions, and in December two environmental groups challenged the decision in court. Sources from the oil industry admit that the countless interconnected caves and subterranean sources of water pose a significant challenge for fracking in some parts of Northern Spain.

On the other hand, it is equally true that Spain is going through a tremendous economic crisis, and that any source of jobs and economic growth is welcome, no matter the environmental or archeological uncertainties. So far, the Spanish government has granted Trofagas 1.2 million hectares (296,000 acres) to frack in Spain.

The Arquetu is far from the only shale gas potential being explored in Spain, as seen from this map. Not far to the east of Arqetu in the Gran Enara area, two American companies—True Oil in Wyoming, and HEYCO, from New Mexico—are partnering with the Basque government to explore 13 areas that officials say contain enough unconventional natural gas to supply Spain for five years.

Some accuse the opposition to fracking of being inadvertently manipulated by the influential lobby of conventional natural gas importers, who import gas for Spanish consumption from Algeria and sense the business threat of this new exploration.

In the end, the travels of this 21st century Arquetu bring to the countryside not the simple reflections of a pilgrimage, but instead, complex questions on international forces in an energy-thirsty world.