Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

The Most Destructive Development on Earth: Coming to Trinidad and Tobago?

The Most Destructive Development on Earth: Coming to Trinidad and Tobago?
By Macdonald Stainsby
Sunday, May 16, 2010

The twin-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, while politically a parliamentary democracy, is in essence a petro-state; overwhelmingly dominated by oil & gas production economically has led to certain characteristics politically. Dependence on oil is as much of a mainstay as the sun in this, the richest of the Caribbean nations (on a GDP average; the country has vast poverty beside wealth). The forms of hydrocarbon recovery that are being tested and exploited around the world in an era of declining oil reserves are getting more and more drastic and often, more destructive -- as we currently bear witness to the carnage in the Gulf of Mexico.

Trinidad & Tobago -- with a population base today of less than 1.3 million people -- reached its peak in oil production in 1978 at 230 000 barrels of oil a day. It is now producing less than 150 thousand barrels, despite ever expanding deep sea oil exploration and extraction, at greater and greater cost (economic and environmental), along side deeper and deeper well construction on land. Rough estimates are that there are approximately 2 billion barrels of oil left in T & T territory. Though still in possession of large, untapped natural gas reserves, the inevitable economic collapse of the country -- which has artificially pegged it's TT dollar at roughly 6 to one US dollar -- has led this country to explore possible other sources of revenues. PetroCaribe, an initiative of the Bolivarian Government of Venezuela, has also pushed aside Trinidad and Tobago as the main supplier of oil to the Caribbean nations that make the island chain all the way up to Cuba. Trinidad is losing supply, and Trinidad has lost their guaranteed market. T & T does have one, almost untouched resource of hydrocarbons left: Tar sands bitumen, almost identical in formation to the deposits being mined in the Athabasca region of Alberta, Canada -- except in most areas, considerably shallower (and therefore easier to access). These reserves are also estimated at roughly 2 billion barrels of bitumen, the raw building block of ultra heavy oil that is mixed with sands and silts in the ground. Such a development, the government would argue, effectively doubles their remaining reserves.

While investigations into possible mining of the tar sands deposits in the Parrylands/Guapo area in the Southwestern region of Trinidad are not new -- some documents make reference to the idea as far back as 1996 -- several more recent developments beg for a deeper understanding of what is at stake with such proposals for the entire nation of Trinidad and Tobago, so the people of the Twin Island Nation can make an informed decision. In February of 2009, Minister of Energy Conrad Enill announced that the bitumen should be extracted using Canada's experience as a model. That “model” is rapidly becoming the most contentious development on the planet; It is already the largest industrial project in human history and developers seek to sacrifice an area slightly larger than England to create a synthetic oil out of extracted bitumen.

When one mines bitumen and then creates a synthetic, 'mock' oil out of the sandy, sticky deposits, the process in a short nutshell is this: Clearcut everything on top of the deposit. Drain off all the water and marsh lands over top. Remove all soil above the bitumen (the industry term for this soil is “overburden”). Scoop out the bitumen, carry it off to something called a slurry, where high velocity spinning of the bitumen sands with extremely high volumes of extremely hot water separate the bitumen from the remaining sands and clays. This uses (on average) four barrels of water for each one barrel of oil it can produce; it also digs up roughly two tons of earth for that same one barrel of oil. Energy used to heat the water for separation is usually high volumes of natural gas. This is usually about one-third the equivalent of the energy produced in one barrel of oil (average conventional crude still found commonly in the world today is more than ten times that, some is far greater still). After this is completed, the used up water is disposed of in giant, concrete built holding pens called tailings ponds. This toxic waste water -- loaded with Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [PAH's], mercury, cadmium, and many other immune-system attacking heavy metals -- cannot be treated and instead at current rates will take 600 years to settle into something that can be partially returned to the water table. All of this (before one burns it in a car, plane or tractor) has already produced roughly three times the C02 of conventional oil. Only coal is currently a dirtier fuel that is in common use. This does not include that major deforestation also accelerates climate change, as does water loss.

Minister Enill also stated: "What is contemplated here is that Petrotrin will joint venture with a partner we have identified. The partner brings to the table the technology, the information, the understanding and that exercise will tell us what we do not now know about that particular resource. Once we know that we then have to make an investment decision as to whether we move forward or not," but this in itself might lend one a belief that bitumen is not being extracted yet. But, in fact, bitumen is already being extracted. This press conference was one where the exploration license for mining specifically was being given over to Petrotrin, the state owned energy company. There is another very destructive way one can carry out tar sands bitumen production. This is called “In-situ”, or “in place”. This method is used in areas where the bitumen reserve is simply too deep to mine (in Canada, some of the mines are up to 200 feet deep). The technology of “Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage” [Sag-D] is growing rapidly and is in use in more places than just Canada.

“The same technology is actually already being tried out in Trinidad by US firm New Horizon Exploration, in collaboration with State company, Petrotrin, in the Parrylands area in south Trinidad [...]” writes the Energy Caribbean magazine (2006/7), an industry-based report. Quick explanation of Sag-D: it does not use giant mines, but instead many large platforms where there would be one small platform for conventional oil -- it also uses twice the energy and twice the water on average as compared to the mining procedure and leaves that toxic water inside the earth where it may well get into the ground water supply.

In Trinidad water is already a scarce resource and during the recent drought water systems to many homes were intermittently shut off. In short, it is worse for climate change and worse for water than the mining described earlier. Both mining and Sag-D projects have become much, much more economical in recent years -- even continuing to make money during the lowest points that oil dipped to on global markets in the last year. Some procedures have even gone under $20 US a barrel in costs. Some analysts are projecting that global oil prices will go back up to $100 a barrel or more in the near future. From a peak oil perspective of increased demand with dwindling supply, this would seem a near certainty.

The areas near where the Guapo Oilsands Quarries exist -- tar sands are used as a means to make cheap pavement for roads throughout Trinidad and Tobago, especially in small villages that have only existed for the last 20 years or so -- are populated in the thousands. Rapidly worsening health of populations living near the giant mines in Canada is already strongly suspected to be from many of the adverse effects of tar sands extraction processes. Fish have visible deformities and contain astronomically high mercury levels while some moose have arsenic in their flesh some 400 times a safe limit to eat. Cancers, heart diseases and auto-immune disorders are escalating in human populations who live downstream of the rivers adjacent to the mines.

One of the first responses that Trinidadians have made to the possibility of developing the tar sands is that there is no realistic fresh water source -- however, extremely close to the existing bitumen deposits the government of T & T is building a desalinization plant for sea water. It is not good for human consumption but it is effective in separating sand from bitumen. Another question is of natural gas for the needed energy, also to separate the bitumen from sands, clays and silts. There is a very large power plant with natural gas as its power source being constructed in the area. Yet another dispute is that the roads may have a hard time accommodating the heavy equipment to carry out the process. The government of T & T is promising the construction of a highway to Point Fortin, the main industry town of the area that is both nearby and already contains a large refinery (the refinery in Pointe-à-Pierre north of the Parrylands/Guapo region & near San Fernando has undergone recent expensive upgrades). This is not to propose that all or even any of these associated developments are definitively being built to allow tar sands mining and exploitation -- the point is that since they are being built, that further amplifies probability and reduces costs from an overhead economic costs perspective. However, the clearest statements come straight from Petrotrin itself.

The announcement from Minister Enill came last year. However, Petrotrin has been involved in a joint venture with Western Oil of Canada (Alberta, to be precise, and recently bought by the Canadian subsidiary of Marathon Oil). The following has been on their website since well before the announcement of February 13, 2009:

Tar Sand Opportunities:

PETROTRIN controls considerable, easily accessible tar-sand reserves presenting good opportunity for joint-venture development. Presently involved with Western Oil of Canada in mining the tar-sands.

If that isn't clear enough, Malcolm Jones the former executive chairman of Petrotrin stated in 2006 “the government is engaging in drafting and eventually enacting new legislation that will facilitate the exploitation of tar sands.” as quoted in the same Energy Caribbean magazine mentioned earlier in regards to SagD production. The unsigned article goes on to state: “Western Oil Sands of Alberta has been working with Petrotrin on oil sands prospects in the Parrylands/Guapo area of South Trinidad for some time but the local legislative framework needs to be appropriate for it to go ahead with a major feasibility study.” That license, at least so far as exploration and the sharing of technology with Canadian experts who have worked in the Albian Sands Muskeg River Mine in Alberta strip mining for bitumen is now in place.

If this disturbs you, all is far from lost. No major licenses for construction or extraction beyond the experimental SagD and the exploratory mining permits exist. Yes, the government appears to be both quietly trying to facilitate this, and there is interest in helping Petrotrin take on this most destructive form of development yet from Canadian and American energy companies. But that alone does not make mining inevitable. The People’s National Movement (PNM) government of Trinidad and Tobago has been pushing a highly controversial (and polluting) aluminium smelter for decades; the combined power of the people in the exact same region as the bitumen deposits has forced the government to renege on the approval of the Alutrint smelter. That smelter went through far more stages of development and permits and assessments (and even land clearing) than the tar sands plans have. The stage is set, so to speak: Now may be a great time to act if Trinibagonians want no tar sands development in T & T. To enter the fray before -- and not after -- the wheels get any further momentum will raise their costs and greatly heighten the chances of a victory for the communities who would be directly impacted. The time is good and the time may indeed be now -- before the price of oil goes back up. Trinidad and Tobago is small; the area that contains bitumen deposits in Canada is itself 14 times larger than the entire Twin Island Nation.

There is also the global impact of tar sands development. There are more than enough reasons without the climate change arguments for any community to reject this form of development. However, there is something else to note. Canada is the only country that signed the Kyoto protocol to formally withdraw from the agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. During the COP15 talks in Denmark last December, Canada was also singled out as the nation who should be shamed for blocking any real progress towards collective global action at the international level around the climate change crisis. Canada is, in a word, being tarred by the tar sands and deservedly so. The world now seeks a new, just and realistic response to climate change and the recent peoples summit held in Cochabamba & Tiquipaya, Bolivia at the end of April was a forum where social movements primarily from the Global South started to collectively do just that.

Canada is globally being put on trial due to the tar sands operations -- and the historically excluded peoples from around the world are speaking to the future in a way that has not been seen before. Climate change is now the primary agenda of history. As social movements seek to find ways to deal with climate change around the planet people are looking for something that helps identify what the problem is. Tar sands represents a turning point: do we make needed changes or deepen and hard wire dependence on fossil fuels?

Globally, we are wedded to oil. Something as disastrous as tar sands development is all about trying to maintain that problem, not solve it or move away from it. Those who resist tar sands speak to a world where new solutions are sought. The world has been given a glimpse of the destruction of offshore oil and gas development with the BP disaster. BP has already installed many massive platforms around the south of Trinidad. Yet tar sands strip mining and In Situ 'oil' development may be the only form even more dangerous and destructive.

The ability to have automatic global allies and friends who will help stop tar sands development in Trinidad and Tobago is not to be underestimated. Activists all over Europe have begun to target Canada for crimes against the climate -- and therefore, crimes against small island nations that will soon become memories, lost underwater like the legend of Atlantis. Trinidadians may indeed have two choices in front of them -- to defend both themselves and the planet by resisting tar sands development, or to allow the government and Petrotrin to invite Canada and the United States to help bring a contribution from Trinidad to slide ever further down the wrong hill of the climate crisis. No one can tell Trinidad and Tobago what to do -- but Trinis have every right to know what their own government and their Canadian friends have not told them. Or, as a local Trinidadian wrote last year in a letter to the editor responding to minister Conrad Enill's announcement of February 13, 2009:

“Will Trinidad become one of the most toxic places on earth based on toxicity per square mile? Consider the aluminium plant being built in the southeast, with all the environmental problems to be expected there. We are on a roller coaster downhill. Toxic, I believe, in terms of environmental hazards, and toxic because of the murders, and kidnappings added on. It just cannot be oil at any price. [....]

The world has been looking on these tar sands operations, environmental groups from around the world are becoming active on it. We read headlines that say 'Alberta to shake its image problems', that oil sands seen as a threat to birds, that the groups are seeking court rulings against the operators[....]” -- Desmond Smith (writing to the Trinidad Express).

Macdonald Stainsby is a social justice activist, writer, journalist and professional hitchhiker looking for a ride to the better world. He is the coordinator of the website http://oilsandstruth.org and can be reached at mstainsby [at] resist.ca.


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