About the tar sands
BP rebranded themselves as 'beyond petroleum'. And yet, in their search for new sources of oil, BP is about to make a decision on whether to invest billions of pounds into the Canadian tar sands - the dirtiest oil currently being produced. In doing so, they are not only threatening the Canadian wilderness, they are also threatening to accelerate dangerous climate change, at precisely the time we should be cutting carbon emissions.
Disaster for the Albertan wilderness and people
The tar sands are already the biggest industrial development anywhere on Earth, and also the biggest opencast mining operation.
The tar sands deposits of heavy oil mixed with clay and sand lie below the surface of the Canadian wilderness. To extract the tar, oil companies clearcut the Canadian boreal forest, gouge out hundreds of metres of topsoil, and turn the landscape into a gaping black pit. Two tonnes of earth has to be dug up and processed to produce each barrel of bitumen. The tar sands are producing 1.35 million barrels a day.
The huge lakes of toxic sludge that fill with the toxic water used in the operation are poisoning the Albertan landscape and water supplies. The impact falls heavily on the First Nations indigenous people of the area. George Poitras, a member of Mikisew Cree indigenous First Nation, says: "My people are dying, and we believe British companies are responsible ... UK oil companies like BP ... are extracting the dirtiest form of oil from our traditional lands, and we fear it is killing us."
If the bitumen is too deep to be mined, the oil companies inject high-pressure steam into the ground, to blast the oil out of the sand and up to the surface. This is called 'in-situ' extraction, and as oil companies begin to go after the tar sands deposits that are deep underground, it's lined up to be the extraction method of the future.
In-situ extraction doesn't create the same enormous opencast pits, but to install the gas piping, roads and rigs it requires still means cutting a swathe through the Canadian boreal forest, destroying the habitat of many plants and animals, and driving many local wildlife species to extinction.
Disaster for the planet
It's very carbon-intensive to produce oil from the tar sands. The site that BP is planning to invest in will produce about three times the emissions per barrel of oil than you would get from normal crude. The steam used in the extraction is produced by burning huge amounts of natural gas - in energy terms, it's up to seven times less efficient to get oil from the tar sands than it is from normal crude.
On any rational assessment of what's happening to the climate, there's no way tar sands make any sense. This is the most polluting source of oil in existence. So how do BP square wanting to invest in tar sands with their claims to being committed to addressing climate change?
The answer is simple. BP are assuming that tackling climate change isn't profitable. Their tar sands plans are based on projections of oil use that will cause a doubling of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere by the end of the century, with an associated global temperature rise of around six degrees.
So it looks like BP's business model of investing in tar sands and other 'unconventional oil' only makes sense if you assume that the climate is going to be out of control by the end of the century. Not really 'beyond petroleum', is it?