Extreme Extraction (Morocco)

Extreme Extraction

Oil production plans could reshape Morocco’s economy and environment

by Macdonald Stainsby

November 17, 2011

originally published in the Media Co-op and The Dominion.

Extreme Extraction

RABAT, MOROCCO– Many well-known voices trying to address the climate crisis on a global scale have posited that less developed countries without a full-blown industrial base can skip industrialization all together and transition away from fossil fuels. Ideally, the development that will take place in this scenario would result in the construction of infrastructure for a post-fossil fuel society.

But if Morocco is any indication, the complete opposite scenario looks more likely. Instead of skipping to climate friendly energy developments, Morocco is poised to begin extracting crude oil from unconventional deposits, the dirtiest fuel available. Mining rock for oil in Morocco would leave massive craters in post-fossil, green energy hopes.

Morocco, like Jordan and Israel, is moving towards using the most carbon intensive fuel base on earth, as oil hovers in a price range that will likely make synthetic crude from oil shale profitable on a near permanent basis. Technology has become cheaper while the price of oil has gone up dramatically. Recent industry estimates indicate that oil can now be extracted from shale for approximately US $40 a barrel.

With oil demand only slated to grow, Morocco is planning and moving towards becoming an unconventional oil producer through mining oil shale and converting it to mock crude oil in a fashion similar to Canadian tar sands development, but borrowing on shale technology from Brazil. Morocco also has contracts to use Estonian technology to mine and burn oil shale directly for domestic electricity.

Estonia is one of a few countries in the world that has ongoing oil shale currently operations. The Tangier deposit of oil shale in the north of Morocco is likely to see Eesti Energy-owned Enefit of Estonia work to mine this shale directly for domestic electricity generation (treating kerogen shale more like a cousin of coal rather than an ancestor of oil).

Petrobras has developed a technique of extracting oil as well as gas from oil shale, and has been involved in this process commercially since the early 1980’s. Petrobras’s partnership with TOTAL energy of France towards shale to oil mining at the Timahdit deposit, a much larger deposit approximately 240 km southeast of the capital Rabat. At Timahdit, Petrobras would be the main operator, and costs (and profits) would be shared by the two world energy majors.

For all these projects, however, there is one persistent problem: water. Even without proposed oil shale mining and in-situ developments, Morocco has a serious potable water problem.

To operationalize oil shale in Morocco, water would need to be sourced from near the Timahdit deposit, the largest deposit opened up for extraction. Timadiht is approximately 250 km east of the capital, Rabat. Throughout the country, waterways are already becoming silt-ridden as erosion from another ecological tragedy– illegal timber harvests– manifests.

Environmental journalists have recently landed directly in the cross-hairs of the Kingdom; journalist Mohammed Attaoui was imprisoned by the Moroccan government after he investigated ongoing instances of illegal timber marketing and exporting. Officially charged and convicted for the extortion of 1000 Dirhams (approximately $120 US), critics maintain Attaoui was set-up in a ploy timed immediately after his research into the country’s “cedar mafia” had been published. He was convicted in March of 2010 and was given a two year sentence.

Deforestation, destructive in its own right, is without a doubt one of the major factors furthering the water crises of Morocco. Add to that the draws on water required to run a major mining operation and the prognosis for the country’s environmental health gets ever bleaker. The proposed mine at Timahdit happens to be in the same region as two national parks– The Ifrane National Park, already under threat from the illegal timber harvest, and Haut Atlas Oriental, which is home to tens of thousands of small farmers who rely on the area and its habitat for agriculture and subsistance.

The illegal timber harvest is the primary threat to the last remaining large population of monkeys in the north of Africa, the macaques. Primarily living throughout the Ifrane National Park, macaques used to be common throughout the Mahgreb but are now endangered by loss of habitat elsewhere as well as the shrinking, illegally harvested  forest. The only place outside of Morocco they live is the very small and shrinking Djebel Babor Nature Reserve on Algeria’s coast. Further, according to The Morocco Board News Service, the region is also home to over 200 forms of plant life not found anywhere else.

Oil extraction is but another burden in a region defined by an already fragile environment. Between the three proposed sites for shale oil development in Morocco, early projections indicate that 50,000 barrels per day of mock oil could be produced for conversion into various fuels within a few years time (this figure does not include electricity generation where shale is burned in a similar fashion to a coal fired plant).

That estimate includes the Tarfaya deposit near Morocco’s border with the nominally independent Western Sahara, which is still occupied by Moroccan forces. Tarfaya has also just seen the completion of an in-situ pilot project constructed by San Leon Energy of Ireland, a smaller player with some operations in the continental United States. Building up Tarfaya has already meant the construction of major highways in less populated parts of southern Morocco to bring supplies to the project.

Morocco is on its way to becoming a testing ground for unprecedented oil shale extraction. “The environmental issues in places such as Colorado are not an issue in Morocco,” John Buggenhagen, San Leon Energy’s vice-president of exploration, told Petroleum Economist. 

This article is the third in a four part series examining unconventional oil deposits in the Middle East and North Africa