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Oil in the Desert

Will water be sacrificed to oil in Jordan?

by Macdonald Stainsby

Oil in the Desert

AMMAN, Jordan--In March of 2011, The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan jumped headlong into unconventional oil extraction, and signed a deal with Karak International Oil (KIO), a subsidiary of Jordan Energy and Mining Limited (JEML--a British company) for the commercial mining of oil shale approximately one hour’s drive from the capital of Amman. Unlike most countries in the region, if you fill up your gas tank in Jordan, you are using imported oil— but the Kingdom is touting a future when extreme extraction will change that, and soon.

Jordan is one of the countries most likely to bear the harshest impacts of climate change, and least suited to dive headlong into the most destructive forms of energy yet devised. Walking the streets of Amman, however, one gets the sense that the government has already decided the country will serve as a launching pad for American interests. The entire city is oriented towards the American troops, engineers, and others who stop off on their way to and from Baghdad, Iraq.

The invasion of Iraq transformed Jordan without the dropping of a single bomb overhead. New oil shale proposals could promote a similarly intense kind of change with an absence of popular input- but perhaps even more discreetly.  

The main oil shale deposit designated for exploitation in Jordan is at Al Lajjun in the southern Karak governorate, and the lease has a 35 square kilometer radius. This project is expected to be producing commercial crude for refining within five years, maxing out some years after that at 60 000 barrels of mock crude a day. By way of comparison, the entire nation consumes an average of 200,000 barrels per day.

Part of this project using construction know how being imported into Jordan comes from the Athabasca region of Canada via Thyssenkrupp Group of Germany. Thyssenkrupp has pledged to build strip mining operations there based on their existing work in Alberta's tar sands mines-- the largest industrial project in human history.

Elsewhere in the country, Royal Dutch Shell operates under a 100 per cent owned subsidiary called Jordan Oil Shale Company (JOSCO). JOSCO maintains long term development plans-- expected to come online no sooner than 2021. Shell/JOSCO have exploration rights to large segments of the country. Shell will also be bringing technology from their operations in Alberta, Canada-- including the huge Albian Sands mine. 

It's not just Shell and Thyssenkrupp that are coming in with know how. So too are Petrobras and TOTAL SA Energy, of Brazil and France respectively. Petrobras has long since operated an oil shale mining and conversion to oil and gas plant. TOTAL has multiple unconventional oil shale and tar sands plays around the world, some operational.  

Oil shale slated for extraction in Jordan is for local electricity (not synthetic crude production), by Eesti Energia of Estonia. Estonian electricity has been provided almost exclusively by oil shale mining and burning for several decades. Eesti Energia is now looking into providing technology and constructing electrical plants from shale in not only Jordan, but also Morocco. Estimates of a recoverable 40 billion barrels of mock crude exist in Jordan, in a total of 26 different deposits.

“We depend 96 per cent on importing our energy from outside of Jordan. It's basically coming from Saudi Arabia, from Iraq and from Egypt,” said Basel Burgan, the head of the Jordanian Friends of the Environment -- a group that, among other issues, is in opposition to possible nuclear development in the country on economic and environmental grounds. “We had depended for a good line on the Egyptian Gas that was cheaper than heavy fuel, but unfortunately the Egyptians have been bombing the pipeline that's sending through Sinai to Jordan because it's connected at the same time to Israel,” he explained. Jordanian Friends of the Environment has yet to take a firm position on oil shale.

Power needs for synthetic oil production are vast, and could coincide with a brand new nuclear power plant expected to be announced by French nuclear powerhouse Areva. The amount of water needed for cooling nuclear reactors as well as heating oil shale to extract petroleum is exceedingly high.

With regards to the water needed to run nuclear plants, Burgan says the Jordanian government  “claims they are going to take this grey water and do tertiary purification which is a very costly plan, about $800 million [US], and eventually it will produce good water available to be used in a reactor.” 

Burgan went on to explain how all of these projects may in fact rely on one another, and even on further regional integration with Israel:

Some people have said that Jordan will end up sending electricity to Israel. [...] I have read only that Hashemite University, located in the area proposed for the plant site (north of Amman ~40kms) has signed an agreement with Colorado University, which already has an agreement with Ben Gurion University on the same project to build up some kind of desalination plant inside the Hashemite University with modern technology for purification and desalination. We say that all of these agreements and projects are basically depending on the Jordanian nuclear reactor because any desalination plant or station would need massive energy, and the energy would be available from a nuclear reactor.

Jordan possesses, at best, the fourth smallest water to population ratio on the planet. Israel, which is also poor in terms of water, has already constructed five desalination plants, one of which is the largest on the planet. In the area where KIO plans to construct a large oil shale mine, many traditional Bedouins live off the land and source their water through deep wells in an extremely arid environment just east of the Dead Sea. Damage to the water table through use for extraction, or through contamination resulting from toxic waste produced by the mining process could have disastrous health effects on local people and ecosystems. The same would be true of air quality.

One of the other possibilities for increasing available water supply is a massive industrial project euphemistically known as the Red-Dead canal. This canal comes with a plan to pump sea water over 200 kilometers from the Red Sea to fill up the ecologically unique Dead Sea (where water levels are currently dropping at an alarming rate) providing sea water for desalination projects and industry to both Israel and Jordan. Essentially Red-Dead project would transform the Dead Sea into little more than a reservoir for Israel and Jordan to use for industry, and would likely require the deepening of 1994 normalization agreements signed in the shadow of the increasingly sidelined 1993 Oslo Agreements, themselves signed as a pre-cursor to a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  

Jordanian water is used in varying amounts by Israel, depending on the season, under the terms of the '94 normalization between the two states. The water situation in Jordan is so bleak that the Red-Dead Canal is endorsed by groups that oppose nuclear power, including Friends of the Environment, in the hopes that this massive Israeli-Jordanian project could supply the population with potable drinking water even as climate change dries out the planet ever further.

The Jordanian government has announced open bids for nuclear plans, while the United States-- backed by Israel-- demands the uranium be converted to fuel somewhere other than the Kingdom out of a desire to prevent technological and research development. For obvious reasons, official confirmation or details about Israel's continued uranium research at their Dimona nuclear facility in the Negev desert, where Israel's nuclear arsenal was almost certainly developed, are not forthcoming. Israel has also declared their desire to have a nuclear power plant in the Negev-- the hot, arid desert lands west of the rapidly drying Dead Sea.

If normalization were to include collaboration on a plan to extract crude from shale, industrial mega-projects would stand in as a regional response to dwindling water and energy supplies. 

With the Red-Dead Canal plan still in play, the possibility of collaboration and increasing development on both sides of the Dead Sea looks likely. 

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


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Topics: Environment

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dawn (dawn paley)
Member since August 2008


Journalist, co-founder VMC, ex-editor & board member with Media Co-op. Author, Drug War Capitalism.

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Thank you, MacDonald

Thank you, MacDonald Stainsby, for this fantastic series on Apartheid Oil.  I've been following your writing since, and you have always impressed me with your well-written and cogent political analysis.  You have talent and passion to last a lifetime.

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