Madagascar tar sands threat

Major tar sands deposits have been discovered in Madagascar. But the country’s extraordinary natural heritage, unstable political situation and extreme poverty mean the extraction could spell disaster. Kara Moses reports.
Tsingy de Bemahara, Madagascar

Tar sands development threatens Madagascar’s astonishing limestone forests, like this one in Tsingy de Bemahara National Park. © Ben Stansall/Alamy

Madagascar is a biological treasure trove. According to Conservation International, the Indian Ocean island has ‘an astounding eight plant families, five bird families, and five primate families that live nowhere else on Earth’. Eighty-five per cent of its species are unique to the island.

The island is less known for the vast tar sands deposits beneath two-thirds of its surface. Bitumen and heavy oil deposits in the arid Melaky region of northwestern Madagascar cover nearly 30,000 square kilometres and contain an estimated 25 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Major petroleum companies are itching to get their hands on the stuff. It could become the largest tar sands project outside Alberta, Canada.

More than 100,000 people in villages above the deposits could have their water and land poisoned by mining wastes

The British-based company Madagascar Oil is already producing heavy oil at Tsimororo, about 500 kilometres northwest of the capital, using a water-intensive steam injection process.

The massive Bemolanga tar sands deposit, north of Tsimororo, is 60 per cent owned by French energy giant Total and 40 per cent owned by Madagascar Oil. Total suspended operations in 2011 when the price of oil dipped below production costs but the company still aims to be pumping tar sands crude by 2020.

Melaky is one of the poorest regions in Madagascar. The people are cattle herders and subsistence farmers – the tar sands lie directly beneath their grazing land. More than 100,000 people in villages above the deposits could have their water and land poisoned by mining wastes. There is just one river in the region, which would be the source for the water needed for tar sands extraction – an estimated 10 barrels of water for each barrel of oil, double that used in Canada.

‘The risk is not just for the people who live along the river by the project site,’ Melaky activist Jean-Pierre Ratsimbazafy told TarSandsWorld. ‘It’s also dangerous for livestock and people who live downstream. This river empties into the ocean, so it risks destroying the biodiversity in the ocean and the mangroves, and the people who live along the coast.’

Adjacent to the oil fields are the stone tsingy forests. Towering limestone pinnacles rise dramatically from virgin jungle that harbours an abundance of rare species. Much of this distinctive landscape is within Tsingy de Bemahara, one of the island’s largest protected areas and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But the northern Beanka area is less protected. To move tar sands oil to the coast would mean a pipeline through or near the Beanka tsingy. Biologist Steve Goodman says this would be a disaster.

‘Beanka is a remarkably diverse and unique forest,’ says Goodman, a Madagascar specialist. ‘A pipeline would open it up to different types of exploitation, whether of rare hardwoods or hunting for the bush meat trade. Malfunctioning of the pipeline and crude oil discharge into the area would be catastrophic.’

Tar sands - the dirtiest oil

Conventional oil: relatively easy to extract.

Heavy oil: slightly denser, harder to extract.

Extra-heavy oil: much denser, similar to tar sands, much harder to extract.

Oil shale: solid rock that releases petroleum-like liquids when heated, environmental damage similar to tar sands.

Tar sands: combination of clay, sand, water and tar (bitumen). Extraction is expensive; uses up to seven barrels of water per barrel of oil.
(Adapted from UK Tar Sands Network’s ‘Stop the Tar Sands from Going Global’ report.)

Kara Moses is a freelance writer and activist based in Birmingham. She spent time in Madagascar in 2009 studying the behavioural ecology of black-and-white ruffed lemurs.