BP, the British oil giant that pledged to move "Beyond Petroleum"
by finding cleaner ways to produce fossil fuels, is being accused of
abandoning its "green sheen" by investing nearly £1.5bn to
extract oil from the Canadian wilderness using methods which
environmentalists say are part of the "biggest global warming
crime" in history.
The multinational oil and gas producer, which last year made a profit
of £11bn, is facing a head-on confrontation with the green lobby in
the pristine forests of North America after Greenpeace pledged a
direct action campaign against BP following its decision to reverse a
long-standing policy and invest heavily in extracting so-called
"oil sands" that lie beneath the Canadian province of
Alberta and form the world's second-largest proven oil reserves after
Producing crude oil from the tar sands -- a heavy mixture of bitumen,
water, sand and clay -- found beneath more than 54,000 square miles of
prime forest in northern Alberta -- an area the size of England and
Wales combined -- generates up to four times more carbon dioxide, the
principal global warming gas, than conventional drilling. The booming
oil sands industry will produce 100 million tonnes of CO2 (equivalent
to a fifth of the UK's entire annual emissions) a year by 2012,
ensuring that Canada will miss its emission targets under the Kyoto
treaty, according to environmentalist activists.
The oil rush is also scarring a wilderness landscape: millions of
tonnes of plant life and top soil is scooped away in vast open-pit
mines and millions of litres of water are diverted from rivers -- up
to five barrels of water are needed to produce a single barrel of
crude and the process requires huge amounts of natural gas. The
industry, which now includes all the major oil multinationals,
including the Anglo-Dutch Shell and American combine Exxon-Mobil,
boasts that it takes two tonnes of the raw sands to produce a single
barrel of oil. BP insists it will use a less damaging extraction
method, but it accepts that its investment will increase its carbon
Mike Hudema, the climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace in
Canada, told The Independent: "BP has done a very good job in
recent years of promoting its green objectives. By jumping into tar
sands extraction it is taking part in the biggest global warming crime
ever seen and BP's green sheen is gone.
"It takes about 29kg of CO2 to produce a barrel of oil
conventionally. That figure can be as much 125kg for tar sands oil. It
also has the potential to kill off or damage the vast forest
wilderness, greater than the size of England and Wales, which forms
part of the world's biggest carbon sinks. For BP to be involved in
this trade not only flies in the face of their rhetoric but in the era
of climate change it should not be being developed at all. You cannot
call yourself 'Beyond Petroleum' and involve yourself in tar sands
extraction." Mr Hudema said Greenpeace was planning a direct
action campaign against BP, which could disrupt its activities as its
starts construction work in Alberta next year.
The company had shied away from involvement oil sands, until recently
regarded as economically unviable and environmentally unpleasant. Lord
Browne of Madingley, who was BP's chief executive until May, sold its
remaining Canadian tar sands interests in 1999 and declared as
recently as 2004 that there were "tons of opportunities"
beyond the sector.
But as oil prices hover around the $100-per-barrel mark, Lord Browne's
successor, Tony Hayward, announced that BP has entered a joint venture
with Husky Energy, owned by the Hong Kong based billionaire Li
Ka-Shing, to develop a tar sands facility which will be capable of
producing 200,000 barrels of crude a day by 2020. In return for a half
share of Husky's Sunrise field in the Athabasca region of Alberta, the
epicentre of the tar sands industry, BP has sold its partner a 50 per
cent stake in its Toledo oil refinery in Ohio. The companies will
invest $5.5bn (£2.7) in the project, making BP one of the biggest
players in tar sands extraction.
Mr Hayward made it clear that BP considered its investment was the
start of a long-term presence in Alberta. He said: "BP's move
into oil sands is an opportunity to build a strategic, material
position and the huge potential of Sunrise is the ideal entry point
for BP into Canadian oil sands."
Canada claims that it has 175 billion barrels of recoverable oil in
Alberta, making the province second only to Saudi Arabia in proved oil
riches and sparking a £50bn "oil rush" as American,
Chinese and European investors rush to profit from high oil prices.
Despite production costs per barrel of up to £15, compared to £1
per barrel in Saudi Arabia, the Canadian province expects to be
pumping five million barrels of crude a day by 2030.
BP said it will be using a technology that pumps steam heated by
natural gas into vertical wells to liquefy the solidified oil sands
and pump it to the surface in a way that is less damaging than open
cast mining. But campaigners said this method requires 1,000 cubic
feet of gas to produce one barrel of unrefined bitumen -- the same
required to heat an average British home for 5.5 days.
A spokesman for BP added: "These are resources that would have
been developed anyway."
Licenses have been issued by the Albertan government to extract 350
million cubic metres of water from the Athabasca River every year. But
the water used in the extraction process, say campaigners, is so
contaminated that it cannot be returned to the eco-system and must
instead be stored in vast "tailings ponds" that cover up to
20 square miles and there is evidence of increased rates of cancer and
multiple sclerosis in down-river communities.
Experts say a pledge
to restore all open cast tar sand mines to their previous pristine
condition has proved sadly lacking. David Schindler, professor of
ecology at the University of Alberta, said: "Right now the big
pressure is to get that money out of the ground, not to reclaim the
landscape. I wouldn't be surprised if you could see these pits from a
satellite 1,000 years from now."
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