Eni CEO Paolo Scaroni signed a strategic agreement. Italian energy giant Eni will invest 3 billion dollars in the Democratic Republic of Congo in four-year period from 2008-2011. Eni has reached agreement for the exploration and exploitation of non-conventional oil in tar sands in Tchikatanga and Tchikatanga-Makola, two areas covering a total of 1790 square km which show enormous potential. "Throughout the shared program with Eni, the Republic of Congo will maximise its own potential as a major energy producing country and become a benchmark in Africa in the tar sands and biofuels field" says Eni's press release.
The Memorandum of Understanding on the Food Plus Biodiesel project outlines a framework for collaboration in the use of vegetable oils from palm tree cultivation on approximately 70,000 unfarmed hectares in the Niari region, in the North West of the Country. This land is expected to produce approximately 340 thousand tons/year of crude palm oil, enough to cover domestic demand for food uses and produce 250,000 tons/year of biodiesel.
Criticism is mounting Eni's plans to squeeze oil from the tar sands of the Republic of Congo, which campaigners claim could endanger one of the world's largest tropical rain forests.
Eni says the crude would be produced in areas of grassy savannah, and wouldn't harm the local environment in the country, the capital of which is Brazzaville.
According to the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the agreements made between Eni and the Congolese government have not been disclosed. Research has revealed an almost total lack of public awareness of the investments in Congo. There has been no meaningful engagement at local or national level by Eni or by the government with Congolese citizens about the projects' potential fiscal, social and environmental impacts. This violates Eni's own environmental and human rights policies.
An invetigative report to be released by the foundation, cites internal Eni reports as saying more than half the tar sands exploration zone is made up of "primary forest and other highly bio-diverse areas."
At issue is a technology condemned by environmentalists as polluting and out-of-synch with global efforts to tackle climate change. Eni's project would mark the first time the process of deriving synthetic crude from oil sands -a mixture of sand, clay and bitumen - has been applied on any scale outside of Canada.
"This is a particularly dirty, carbon-intensive form of oil production and it is being planned for an area that's highly sensitive in ecological terms," said Dr. Sarah Wykes, one of the authors of the report. "It's just too high-risk."
In a response to emailed questions, Eni said the tar sands project would involve "no destruction of primary forest; no occupation of existing farmland; no impact on areas of high biodiversity; and no-resettlement of people." It said whatever the conclusion of the environmental and social impact assessment it is currently conducting, "no rain forest area will be affected by the project."
Canada's oil sands, lying under an area of boreal forest the size of Florida, have helped turn the country into a major oil producer. Canada boasts 174 billion barrels of recoverable bitumen, making its oil reserves the world's second largest after Saudi Arabia.
But the industry has come under attack for the huge amounts of energy and water it consumes. Scientists have calculated that extracting one barrel of crude from oil sands produces at least three times as much carbon dioxide as drilling for a barrel of conventional oil.
Meanwhile, water used to separate the oil from the sand is dumped in toxic tailing ponds, some of which are so big they are visible from space. Huge tracts of forest have been cleared to make way for oil sands developments.
The enormous cost of such projects hasn't deterred Western majors from seeking to increase their exposure to so-called "unconventional" resources like oil sands. Many of them are eyeing the Orinoco Belt, a vast deposit of heavy oil in Venezuela.
Eni first unveiled its tar sands investment in the Republic of Congo in May last year. It also pledged to build a new electric power station and to create oil palm plantations. Eni received permits to explore for tar sands in two areas_-chikatanga and Tchikatanga-Makola_-that cover an area of 1,790 square kilometers. It believes the area could hold several billion barrels of oil.
The Italian company is already well-established in Congo, sub-Saharan Africa's fifth-largest oil producer. Eni operates a huge onshore oil field called M'boundi, and plans to use natural gas from the field to power a plant that will upgrade the bitumen from its tar sands development. Currently, the gas is simply flared into the atmosphere.
But from the outset, the project was seen as controversial. Around 60% of Congo is covered by lowland tropical forests, much of it undisturbed wilderness that acts as a vital carbon sink.
Over the past year or so, Eni has been trying to establish the extent of the tar sands resource, using seismic testing, satellite imaging and by drilling wells. It has also been studying the potential environmental and social impact of the project, a process the company says is ongoing.