Andreas Späth

Messy oil sands in Africa

2011-06-08 08:05

Andreas Späth

A method of producing oil that has been called the “most climate-hostile energy source in commercial production today” is coming to our neck of the woods with operations slated to start in the Republic of Congo and Madagascar, two of the world’s poorest countries that stand to “gain” more in environmental destruction and pollution than in public benefits.

The exploitation of bituminous sands, also known as oil or tar sands, is the most rapidly expanding sector of the petroleum industry today. They consist of a sticky mixture of sand, clay, water and bitumen, a very viscous type of petroleum. Before it can be converted into a useable form, the bitumen has to be separated from the other constituents, usually by cleaning it with hot air, water, steam and solvents. If they are situated close to the surface, oil sands are typically strip-mined. For deeper deposits, the bitumen is liquefied in situ by the direct injection of steam into the ground.

The entire process requires large quantities of water and energy and produces enormous amounts of toxic waste. Environmentalists estimate that the production of oil from these types of deposits generates between 2 and 5 times more greenhouse gasses than conventional petroleum production. More conservative studies suggest a “well-to-wheel” carbon footprint that is 15-23% worse than that of conventional oil.

O dear Canada

Canada has oil sand riches approximately equal to the world’s total reserves in conventional crude oil. It’s currently the only large scale producer and its four mines in Alberta have been described as “the most destructive project on Earth” and “the biggest environmental crime in history”.

Besides their considerable contribution to climate change, Canadian oil sand operations have already resulted in the destruction of large swaths of boreal forests and wetlands. Local indigenous communities face air pollution, detrimental health effects and a threat to their traditional way of life. Evaporation ponds hold immense quantities of toxic waste and scientific studies have shown heavy metal contamination of the nearby Athabaska River.

Republic of Congo

In 2008, Eni, a large Italian energy company, signed a secretive deal with the government of the Republic of Congo to exploit oil sand deposits in the Tchikatanga and Tchikatanga-Makola areas about 70km from Pointe-Noire. Preliminary investigations suggest that a 100 km2 sample area alone contains 500 million to 2.5 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Although the Dow Jones Sustainability Index has rated the firm as the most “sustainable” oil and gas company – an oxymoron if ever there was one – for four years running, concerns over the project’s environmental and socio-economic impacts are mounting. Eni’s exploration area extents to within about 20km of the Conkouati-Douli National Park and 50-70% of it is covered by primary forests and regions of high biodiversity in the Congo Basin. Surveys have shown that local communities are largely uninformed about the oil sand developments and the destructive impacts they are likely to have.


In Madagascar, French oil major Total and Madagascar Oil are hoping to exploit two large oils sand deposits in the impoverished western Melaky region. One of them overlaps the Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve, a Unesco World Heritage site and an area of rich biodiversity, mangrove swamps and indigenous forest. Oil sand operations here are expected to be at least as dirty and energy-intensive as they are in Canada, but even more financially profitable: the government has offered Total a 99% share of all revenues for the first decade of operation with only 1% going to the state’s coffers.

Just another dead end

The petroleum industry would have us believe that oil sands and other “unconventional” sources of oil and gas, will provide us with a smooth transition from our current addiction to fossil fuels to a cleaner, renewable energy future. I think that’s bogus. It’s a bit like saying that Stalin provided a smooth transition from the oppressive regime of the Tsars to a democratic Russia without taking into account the disastrous consequences for the Russian people and their environment. We need to do everything we can to wean ourselves off oil, gas and coal. Oil sands, whether they are found in Canada or Africa, are the wrong option and will only prolong our planet-damaging dependence.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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