Problems with dirty oil in Madagascar

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Problems with dirty oil in Madagascar

Large areas of tar sands (to produce dirty oil) have been discovered in Madagascar. But this could be a disaster for the country because of the nature, the unstable political situation and terrible poverty. Kara Moses reports.


Madagascar has amazing forests of limestone like this one in Tsingy de Bemahara National Park. If they develop the tar sands, they could destroy it (© Ben Stansall/Alamy)

Madagascar is an amazing place for biology. Conservation International says that this island in Indian Ocean has ‘eight plant families, five bird families, and five primate families that live nowhere else on Earth’. Eighty-five per cent of its species are only found on the island, and nowhere else in the world.

But not so many people know about the large areas of tar sands under two-thirds of the country. There is nearly 30,000 km2 of bitumen and heavy oil in the dry Melaky region of northwestern Madagascar. This means companies could get about 25 billion barrels of oil from it. Big petroleum companies really want to get the oil. It could become the largest tar sands project after the very large ones in Alberta, Canada.

The British-based company Madagascar Oil is already producing heavy oil at Tsimororo (about 500 kilometres northwest of the capital) by forcing water as steam into the ground.

60 percent of the very large Bemolanga tar sands area, north of Tsimororo, is owned by French energy company Total and 40 per cent is owned by Madagascar Oil. Total stopped working there in 2011 when the price of oil fell to below production costs but the company still plans to produce oil from tar sands in 2020.

Melaky is one of the poorest regions in Madagascar. The people look after cattle and grow small amounts of food. The tar sands are under the land used by the cattle. More than 100,000 people in villages above the oil deposits could have big problems with poison in their water and land from the mining wastes. There is only one river in the region. They would use this water to get the oil out of the tar sands – they need about10 barrels of water for each barrel of oil, double the amount of water they use in Canada.

‘The risk is not just for the people who live along the river by the project site,’ Jean-Pierre Ratsimbazafy (an activist from Melaky) told TarSandsWorld. ‘It’s also dangerous for animals and people who live down the river. This river goes into the ocean, so it could destroy the biodiversity in the ocean and the coast areas, and be very dangerous for the people who live along the coast.’

Near the oil fields are the stone tsingy forests. These are high limestone rocks in the jungle with a lot of rare species of plants and animals. A lot of this amazing landscape is in Tsingy de Bemahara, one of the largest protected areas on the island (and protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site). But the Beanka area in the north is not so protected. If they move tar sands oil to the coast, they will build a pipeline through or near the Beanka tsingy. Biologist Steve Goodman says this would be a disaster.

‘Beanka is an amazing diverse and unique forest,’ says Goodman, a Madagascar specialist. ‘If they build a pipeline, this would bring in different types of exploitation – companies would come to take the rare hardwoods and hunt the animals. If there were problems with the pipeline, it would be so terrible if the oil came out into this area.’

Tar sands - the dirtiest oil

Normal oil: quite easy to take out of the ground

Heavy oil: a bit denser, harder to extract

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

Oil shale: solid rock that, when you heat it, you can get liquid like petroleum from it, environmental damage similar to tar sands

Tar sands: combination of clay, sand, water and tar (bitumen). Expensive to extract; uses as many as 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 in Birmingham. In 2009, she studied the black-and-white ruffed lemurs in Madagascar.

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