Rock that burns

When they hear ‘tar sands’, most people think ‘Canada’. But companies are eyeing up dirty oil deposits all over the world. *Mika Minio-Paluello* travels to two of the largest.

Dark material: a lump of bitumen found in Congo.

Photo by Elena Gerebizza (CRBM)

Driving through the eastern desert of Jordan, between Amman and Iraq, toxic tailings ponds and polluted rivers don’t come to mind. Known as the badia, the desert appears lunar, strewn with black basalt boulders created by long-extinct volcanoes. Occasionally, the landscape is crossed by broad, sparsely vegetated wadis – a dry riverbed that only flows following heavy rain.

Numerous civilizations have made this supposedly barren region their home. The Natufian hunter-gatherers harvested wild grain and created stone art 11,000 years ago. Nine millennia later, Nabataeans made parts of this desert bloom with their ingenious water-catchment systems, including terraced wadis. Greeks, Romans and Arabs later conquered the area, leaving behind over a hundred palaces, multiple dams and reservoirs.

Many Bedouin continue to live in the badia; the name itself means ‘the place the Bedouin came from’. Small villages slide past, with tents, concrete block houses and large flocks of sheep and goats. Most Bedouin are ‘settled’ into these villages, but a significant number continue to live as nomads.

Red-Dead water

It is here that Shell plans to introduce its tar sands extraction practices – well-known from images of torn-up Alberta. The company has committed to spend $540 million exploring 22,500 square kilometres – an area larger than Wales, that covers a quarter of the country.

Jordan is believed to hold over 40 billion tonnes of tar shale, a form of tar sands. Known as ‘the rock that burns’, tar shale will give up what is known as ‘synthetic crude’ oil when the rocks are heated to extreme temperatures.

Shell clearly sees its Jordan venture as a long-term investment to build up future reserves. Sadat Kolonic, exploration team leader in the country, announced that: ‘We invest in projects that run for centuries. The commercial decision to invest does not happen until near 2020.’ Sadat, a Bosnian geologist with experience in Mauritania and Tunisia, is probably exaggerating in referring to ‘centuries’. However, analysts expect that extraction would start around 2035, and continue until 2080.

Shell has announced that it will introduce its proprietary ‘in situ conversion process’ – developed in Canada – to boil the oil out of the ground by injecting hot steam into deep holes. As tar sands extraction in Canada is driving gas exploration in the Arctic, pipelines across the continent and refineries on the Gulf of Mexico, so Shell’s plans in Jordan will require extensive industrial infrastructure, including steam-generating plants, many oil wells, and extensive gas and syncrude pipelines, to be built across this ancient land.

The gas is likely to be piped in from Iraq. The big unanswered question is where Shell will find the water to process these heavy fossil fuels into synthetic crude. The reason toxic tailings ponds and polluted rivers seem so unthinkable in the eastern badia is the dryness of the desert. Jordan is the fourth poorest country in the world in terms of water, with annual per capita supply of 200 cubic metres per person, compared to a world average of 8,900. Current use of non-renewable fossilized deep-water aquifers, combined with a burgeoning population, means that by 2025 water supply per person is expected to halve.

Yet processing tar sands requires immense quantities of the liquid. Generating one barrel of oil uses up to six barrels of water. Shell’s plans will need 50-500 million tonnes of water every year – water that Jordan just does not have.

The most likely source of water for Shell will be the Red-Dead Canal. Heavily criticized by environmental campaigners in Amman, this proposed $10 billion project is intended to pump sea-water 200 kilometres from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, where it will be used to cool nuclear reactors. Local opponents have warned of damage to protected coral reefs in the Red Sea, degradation to habitats in the Jordan Valley and microbial blooming in the Dead Sea itself.

Rocky relationship

As the California Zephyr climbs westward into the Colorado Rockies, my fellow train passengers stare in silence at hundreds of miles of narrow gorges, red rock cliffs and frozen waterfalls. Coyotes run through the snow when they hear the train approach. There is no road in sight; the rail line is following what looks like a small ice-covered stream but is apparently the Colorado River. Beaver dams span much of it, and hot springs briefly melt the ice, to the satisfaction of bald eagles hunting the exposed fish.

Just a few miles north of the train line, near the towns of Rifle and Meeker, Shell has been trying to extract oil from the Rocky Mountains for over a decade. By mining and boiling the rock in the so-called ‘Green River Formation’, the oil corporations could suck a potential 800 billion barrels out of these mountains – three times Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves.

Yet processing these deposits into crude is even more complicated and expensive than with Canadian tar sands. Many locals are worried about contamination of wild areas, pollution and draining of precious water and climate crisis acceleration. Stephen Block from the Wilderness Alliance believes that the plans will ‘leave huge, lasting scars. And eastern Utah/western Colorado is a landscape that heals very slowly from that type of damage.’

With limited water resources in the mountains, Shell has been snapping up rights to siphon off part of the flow in nearby streams and rivers. Last year, Shell submitted a legal claim to a significant portion of the water from the Yampa River. The 400 residents of the town of Yampa are opposing Shell’s filing, but feel that the legal system is biased towards the oil company’s interests.

Shell is facing other legal complications, with a criminal investigation into how the company obtained three lucrative leases on federal land in Colorado. The Justice Department believes President Bush’s Interior Secretary Gale Norton illegally used her position to benefit Shell, then took a highly paid job with the company. Shell apparently received ‘some of the best lands’ and was the only company to secure three leases. Each tract could hold up to $700 billion of recoverable oil.

Colorado and Jordan are not the only wild areas under threat from the industrial infrastructure, landscape destruction and toxic pollution the quest for tar sands oil will bring. While most of the world’s onshore and coastal offshore crude oil deposits have been well explored, tar sands deposits have barely been assessed globally, as the technology to extract the fuel has not been available. But as investments in Alberta bring down the price of producing synthetic crude, oil companies are now expanding their tar sands operations internationally, from Venezuela to Madagascar.

Corporate executives and government diplomats are spending billions to create a political, technological and legislative reality for international tar sands extraction. If synthetic crude becomes truly viable, liquid fossil fuels equivalent to four times current oil reserves could be accessible – particularly in the US, China and Canada. Each barrel carries several times the emissions of current crude. This techno-fix to peak oil is a climatic nightmare.

The question is, will we pre-empt them, before the Jordanian desert is torn up, the Rocky Mountains’ rivers are diverted and the Congolese rainforest is chopped down?

Mika Minio-Paluello is PLATFORM’s Community Support Campaigner, living and working with those resisting oil and gas projects. Reports from slow travels along the fossil fuel frontline can be read at