BARILOCHE, Argentina (Reuters) - Argentina will begin exporting natural gas to neighboring Chile before the end of the year, the energy ministers of both countries said on Thursday, as output from the Vaca Muerta shale field rises.
The two South American countries had previously signed deals allowing for the export of gas or electricity in emergency situations, but required that an equivalent amount be re-imported within twelve months.
Chilean companies are in talks to sign import deals and the first flow of gas across the Andes could come in October or November of this year, Chile energy minister Susana Jimenez said in an interview in Bariloche, Argentina at the G20 Meeting of Energy Ministers.
“We see a great opportunity for mutual benefit,” she said, adding that the gas could come both from the Neuquen basin, home to Vaca Muerta, and from the Austral basin in southern Argentina.
The gas could be used for electricity generation, replacing imports from elsewhere, or to heat homes in areas where families still depend on wood, a source of pollution in the center-south region, Jimenez said. Chile produces little hydrocarbons of its own.
The unrestricted exports would mark a turning point in energy trade in the region. Argentina was once a major supplier of natural gas to Chile, but triggered a diplomatic crisis in the mid-2000s by cutting off shipments when its own supplies ran low.
Argentina sits atop the world’s No. 2 shale gas reserves but is still a net energy importer. Since taking office in December 2015, President Mauricio Macri has sought to loosen labor rules and boost infrastructure to attract investment.
Rising output from Vaca Muerta could help the country export more than it imports by 2021, Argentina’s energy minister Juan Jose Aranguren said at a news conference. The country is set to import slightly more than 50 cargoes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) this year, down from 68 last year and 90 in 2015.
Argentina still needs the LNG imports to meet peak winter demand, but in the southern hemisphere summer months it could see a surplus, Aranguren said.
“This summer we will start to sign permits for exporting natural gas to Chile without any restrictions,” he said.
Reporting by Luc Cohen, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien