This week BP announced it is buying a 50 per cent stake in Husky Energy's tar sands development project in Alberta, Canada, to produce more than 200,000 barrels by 2020. The move in effect signals the company is ready to participate in one of the most environmentally destructive projects on the planet.
Canada's tar sands are second only in size to the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia, with more than 149,000 sq km an area larger than all of England (130,410 sq km). Tar sands are a mixture of sand, clay and bitumen, a heavy tar-like substance that can be converted into oil. Instead of simply drilling a well, the tar sands must be strip-mined in giant open pits or mined underground with in situ technologies that inject super-heated water into the ground.
The process is very water and energy intensive. A barrel of tar sands oil requires up to five times more energy to produce than a conventional barrel and results in five times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. The US-based World Resources Institute estimates the tar sands will soon match the entire carbon dioxide emissions of the Czech Republic. By 2020 the tar sands are expected to release more than 141 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, or more than the emissions currently produced by all the road transport in the UK 125.3 million tons in 2002).
The development of the tar sands is the largest reason that the Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper's government is refusing to meet its Kyoto commitment to reduce Canada's greenhouse gas emissions by 6 per cent from 1990 levels. More than two-thirds of Canada's "Kyoto gap" of 270 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2005 is attributable to the impact of the tar sands. It's little wonder that Canada is now blocking progress on climate change at the UN negotiations in Bali.
It takes three to five barrels of fresh water to produce a single barrel of oil from the tar sands. Considering the tar sands are currently producing more than one million barrels of oil per day, the tar sands are literally draining rivers dry. Most of this water ends up in huge toxic holding ponds that are already visible from space.
Indigenous communities in Fort Chipewyan have been experiencing unprecedented rates of a rare form of cancer. A recent water study showed that the water in Fort Chipewyan contained high levels of arsenic, and fish are contaminated with elevated levels of mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
BP's decision to enter this environmental nightmare strips away any credibility it may have had in being a good corporate citizen. Instead of trying to move "beyond petroleum" it has invested in the dirtiest oil project on the planet.
Mike Hudema is a tar sands campaigner for Greenpeace Canada