Forest of Dean & Wye Valley


In R.Richardson on August 25, 2010 at 12:43 pm

What happens when the supplies run out?

BP’s debacle in the Gulf of Mexico has highlighted more than anything else what happens when once rich deposits of oil begin to run dry – and the oil companies are forced to try to tap in to more and more unsuitable and inaccessible reserves to satisfy our fuel hungry society.

It’s called “Peak Oil” – the time when demand for oil begins to outstrip the supplies of crude that can be exploited. And it’s happening now.

The big oil corporations are now being forced to drill further and further out to sea, to seek oil as much as a mile below the surface. In the Gulf of Mexico, BP has been portrayed as the big villain of the piece – and quite rightly so. But this company is not alone. All the big oil conglomerates are now scrambling to exploit what they can – and taking bigger risks all the time. Esso in Alaska, Shell in Nigeria – and BP wherever they can. They are taking risks with the environment – not to mention the lives of the people who live in the areas where oil exploration is taking place.


The “tar sand” oil field in Northern Alberta, is a case in point. This is Canada’s “dirty oil”. The tar sands cover an area larger than England and Wales, and the environmental havoc being caused by the extraction and refining of the crude oil is enormous.

We highlighted the havoc being caused by the exploitation of the Albertan tar sands in the Clarion dated February/March 2008. Today the situation is even more dire.

America now imports the bulk of its oil from Canada. Apart from its own oil reserves, it had long relied on the Middle East to fuel its hunger for oil. But today it has turned to its northern neighbour – and American oilmen have a high profile in the Canadian tar sands. 65 per cent of the oil is exported to the USA. Incidentally, both BP and Shell also have interests in this massive project.

The tar sands have been described as the largest, most polluting industrial project in the world today. Extracting the oil from the tar sands gives off three times more greenhouse gas emissions than in conventional oil fields. It uses four times as much water and heat to fill one barrel of oil.

This is taking a terrible toll. The land, air, and water around the Athabasca River, and communities downstream from Fort McMurray (the centre of the oilfield) are now toxic, a process that is probably irreversible. Forests have been levelled, and millions of gallons of water a day taken from the Athabasca River that flows down into the Rocky Mountains.

What’s happening in northern Alberta naturally concerns Canadian environmentalists (but not, it seems, the Alberta provincial government that for years has ridden high on a wave of prosperity from the oil industry).


The “success” of the exploitation of the Albertan tar sands has provoked a desire to exploit other potential oil mines. According to the Guardian in May this year , it “has triggered a rush by Shell and other oil companies to set up similar operations in Russia, Congo and even Madagasca”.

A number of other oil companies, including BP, seem eager to search for other tar sand sites to exploit. BP is interested in exploiting reserves in Venezuela, whilst other companies have their eyes on Morocco, Egypt, and even Jordan.


Currently, though, it’s been BP that has been gaining media attention, particularly in the USA, after millions of gallons of crude oil poured into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

With the help of US subcontractors, BP had been trying to extract crude from the below the sea bed. Thanks possibly to faulty equipment, the pipe line sprung a leak.

BP is, of course, identified by Americans as a “British” company, even though over a third of its shares are in American hands. Once upon a time, as British Petroleum, it had been owned by the UK Government – an arrangement favoured by Winston Churchill.

But Margaret Thatcher thought differently. She sold off all Government shares, and the company was floated on the international stock exchanges.

Now BP is little more than another multinational oil corporation with over a third of its shares in American hands. Indeed, for a while it promoted its initials as standing for “Better Petrol”.

As we entered the new millennium, BP tried to project a new, greener, image. It’s logo was changed to make it appear more environmentally friendly. It promised to move “Beyond Petroleum”, by seeking cleaner ways to produce fossil fuels, or indeed to invest in alternative energy sources.


But at the beginning of December 2007 it seemed to have abandoned its green image when it invested nearly £1.5 billion in the Alberta tar sands.

The Independent declared that such an investment committed it to “using methods which environmentalists say are part of the ‘biggest global warming crime’ in history. The multinational oil and gas producer, which last year made a profit of £11 billion, is facing a head-on confrontation with the green lobby in the pristine forests of North America….”

In a comment in the Independent, Mike Hudema, a campaigner for Greenpeace Canada, declared that “by 2020 the tar sands are expected to release more than 141 million tons of greenhouse gases annually…

“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.”

But earlier this year, BP’s reputation took an even greater tumble with the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Whether the company will ever be able to recover from it remains to be seen. The cost of capping the leak, and the clean up, alone runs into hundreds of billions. Meanwhile, BP’s shares have tumbled, and its reputation is in tatters.

But there must be a number of other oil companies who breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: