Madagascar fears repeat of Canada's tar sands devastation

Tar sands mining

Canada has struggled to limit the pollution and destructive legacy of tar sands mining

UK banks helping to finance oil giant Total's exploitation of tar sands on the world's fourth largest island despite lack of adequate environmental controls or regulation

Plans to extract oil from tar sands deposits in Madagascar, including one partly inside a UNESCO World Heritage site, have been condemned by an alliance of environmental and human rights groups in the country.

French energy giant Total has identified billions of barrels of oil in two main areas of tar sands in the western region of Melaky, working in collaboration with a Bermuda-registered company Madagascar Oil. The tar sands deposits are part of a wide range of iron ore, nickle and hydrocarbon reserves on the island, which have attracted the interest of multinational corporations from Europe, the US and China.

Following a coup in 2009, Madagascar still does not have an internationally recognised government, leading to fears that a tar sands industry, which has already caused widespread environmental pollution in Canada, would be largely unregulated.

Tar sands are deposits of oil-rich bitumen mixed with clay and sand embedded in rocks often buried beneath the surface. Extraction requires the creation of vast open mines and is three times more carbon-intensive than conventional oil sources.

A two-year study of the Athabasca River, which runs through Canada's main region of tar sands deposits, by ecologists at the University of Alberta found levels of arsenic, copper, cadmium, lead, mercury, nickel, silver and zinc far in excess of national guidelines. The Alberta government and industry continue to deny the pollution is from tar sands projects despite the fact that the samples were taken downstream from industrial oil sands sites in the Canadian province.

'If they can't control the damage in Canada, a developed country, imagine in a developing country where they have no financial or human resources. I think the impacts will be much worse,' says Holly Rakotondralambo, from the Voahary Gasy, an alliance of Madagascan environmental and human rights groups.

International observers who have visited the island say it has 'no expertise' to deal with this scale of development. 'They have no idea about tar sands extraction and are completely reliant on the oil companies themselves and the information they provide,' says Darek Urbaniak, a campaigner from Friends of the Earth Europe.

Water supplies

As well as pollution, Madagascan campaigners worry about limited water supplies. Unlike in Canada, the tar sands area in Madagascar has a much more precarious water situation - the one major river is a lifeline for local villages, largely made up of subsistence farmers. Total have so far insisted there is enough supply for the hugely water-intensive tar sands extraction process. However, local campaigners says this is only true in the rainy season, which lasts just 3 or 4 months.

Infrastructure, including roads and pipelines, connected to the development of tar sands mining would also cut across national parks, including the Bemeraha nature reserve, say campaigners. The reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage site, valued for its limestone karst landscapes, mangrove swamps and forests.

Total were due to decide whether to go-ahead with the extraction later this month but uncertainty about the political situation in the country means that may now be delayed. Observers say that with the Chinese state oil company Sino Union Petroleum Corporation (SUNPEC) among those also known to be interested in tar sands deposits on the island, it was more a question of who rather than if someone would be interested in extracting the tar sands.

Regardless of the outcome, Madagascar itself is unlikely to benefit significantly from the project. Under agreements signed between the oil companies and the officials, just 4 per cent of the oil revenue over the first 30 years will go to the government.

Local campaign groups working in the area say local people still believe the company profits are for them and have been poorly informed about the reality of what the development of tar sands would mean. 'They have no voice or education to oppose or understand. They are so poor that if you give them just a little money they will accept anything without any idea about what the impacts will be,' says Holly, from Voahary Gasy.

European campaigns

Campaign groups have been lobbying MEPs in Europe to prevent fuel coming into the EU from tar sands projects - a move that could put pressure on Total not to go ahead with the project in Madagascar.

Under proposals being considered by member states as part of reform of the Fuel Quality Directive, oil from from the tar sands industry is set to be classified as having greater GHG emissions than conventional oil. Such a move would effectively ban its use in EU states, where fuel providers are legally bound to aim for 6 per cent reductions in GHG emissions by 2020. However, the UK is known to be among those opposed to the move.

The World Development Movement (WDM) are also campaigning to stop UK investment aiding tar sands development in Madagascar, with The Royal Bank of Scotland, majority-owned by the UK taxpayer, having given more than £300 million in finance to the oil giant Total.

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