Ulan Bator: When you get out of the plane and enter the Chinngis Khan Airport just outside of Ulan Bator, you quickly realize that Mongolia is a former Soviet Republic. An incredibly drab and oddly out of date international airport, the walls of the customs area have peeling paint and general disorganization as you struggle to figure out where any line up for customs begins and ends. You can see the stone faced bureaucrats and soldiers in seemingly dated uniforms standing around while you’re getting ready to show off the required prearranged visa. After you stumble your way through that mess, you get to the conveyor belt that jams with luggage bags that are apparently much larger now on average than when it was first constructed. The feeling of being in a time warp lasts– right up until you step outside for the first time.
Immediately upon getting outside, in the dark and on a chilly night reminiscent of northern Canada despite the date being in the middle of May, I was confronted by a man from my home province of British Columbia, Canada. Skipping the usual opening conversation about the ongoing hockey playoffs I normally attempt with ex-pats carrying the same passport as I, he told me immediately that he was working for one of the large mining companies.
“Eight weeks on, two weeks off,” he explained. I thought I was talking to a tar sands employee from Newfoundland in a weird shock to my senses. “I don’t care much about being here, it’s all about the money.” This would essentially set the tone of how I would interact with Canadians and Australians who cover the city of UB, many but certainly not all working at the simply giant Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine. In the days since I returned from Mongolia, the mine has been given the go-ahead for full operations– on a mine site roughly the size of Manhattan.
What isn’t the size of Manhattan is Ulan Bator, the capital city and home to over half the population of the vast territory of Mongolia. It’s population is officially slightly more than 1.7 million, out of less than 3 million in the entire country. An average sized city, the capital shows the signs of shock brought on by the influx of the mining on the skyline alone. Construction of modern office towers, often next to block concrete cookie cutters from the Soviet era, ring the horizon in a truly imposing fashion. Cranes are everywhere. In all directions one can see the gold rush atmosphere, that– and I cannot believe I’m writing this– makes Fort McMurray, Canada, the home city of the tar sands rush, seem tame by comparison.
The numbers bear it out. With over 2 dozen major mining operations led by Canadian companies, Canada is the second largest trading partner of Mongolia, behind China and ahead of Russia, Australia, Japan and everyone else. This is definitely not because of the tourism sector, nor shared values from winter, hockey and democracy– it’s about the fact Canada hosts more mine headquarters than anyone in the world, and no country is accepting them in faster to operate than Mongolia.
What is dangerous to all mining operations in terms of impacts on the land and life apply more strongly to Mongolia than most locations. Mongolia has a severe problem with water; most traditional herders, despite being nomadic throughout the year, have relied historically on very small surface water levels and heavily off wells to very deep underground aquifers.
In all areas where there is some level of mining activity, which is to say the entire country, water levels have dropped, dramatically. The question becomes one of degree.
If one assumes that mining companies from foreign locations now call the shots in Mongolia, I’d say that was a very safe assumption. If one realizes that Oyu Tolgoi itself commences commercial production basically now, and that the total of GDP for the entire country coming from OT will become a little more than a third of the entire economy, then we can safely posit that Rio Tinto and Ivanhoe are to Mongolia as Saudi Aramco is to Saudi Arabia (If Saudi Aramco was not owned by Saudis). This is the size of OT in a country with over 25 Canadian mining companies, several oil companies and multiple dozen Chinese mining companies, a country where every powerline one sees outside of UB is heading for a mine– hovering over small towns (sums) but not connecting to them.
I did not head to Mongolia on an investigation of mining, however, though it happens to anyone by default by simply being in a city where English is rapidly becoming more common than Russian, despite 70 years in the Soviet orbit.
I headed to Mongolia in order to see what was up with the recently publicized oil shale industry. This is oil shale such as kerogen shale, the stuff that isn’t fracked, but would be mined or extracted in the ground (in-situ) in a manner much like the famous Canadian tar sands. Mongolia apparently has a lot of the kerogen-bearing rock, in the two main types, and in April, 2013 Genie Energy announced a deal they struck with the Petroleum Authority of Mongolia [PAM].
The flashers went off in my mind upon hearing that the proposed experimental, non-commercially operating technology developed in the United States and almost under way in an area some 12 kilometres from Jerusalem on pastoral vineyard lands that religious folks will tell you was where David slew Goliath. Why would Genie– upon whose board sit Rupert Murdoch, Howard Jonas, Dick Cheney, Michael Steinhardt, Lord Jacobs Rothschild and others– want to come to Mongolia? These open Zionists and militarists have made clear their goal is to make Israel an oil superpower– They even hired Israel “Relik” Shafir, a pilot who flew the sorties attacking the Osirak Nuclear Reactor in Iraq back in 1981– to be their CEO. He publicly likes to reference his time in the Israeli air force as having taught him the importance of energy self-sufficiency.
Well, not all Israelis and others have gone along with the plan, and the chief concern has been the destruction of water and land via an unproven process. With local groups and some environmental NGO’s together, legal challenges have not stopped the development of this oil shale deposit, but the costs– economic and political– have gone up, and the process has been slowed down.
In the meantime, head researcher for the project, Harold Vinegar, is retired from a career as a researcher for Shell in the United States. He has taken the job, despite retirement, with Genie in Israel (through Israel Energy Initiatives originally) after making Aliyah, and connects his decades of work mostly in Colorado on oil shale production that has never been allowed beyond experimental by the American Department of the Interior. He has stated (as have almost all the board members) he believes that doing so is the guarantor of Israeli national security.
The technology, if applied, has been promoted as safe to water tables. But you can be the judge; the essential component to this idea that is even more deadly to the climate than tar sands operations of any type, is the extension of long, heating coils that would be inserted into the deposit hundreds of meters into the ground. This would then use a local power source (and in Mongolia, that would be coal) to basically cook the ground at 650 degrees F. This would last many months, some estimates are of 15 of them. Then kerogen, which is not oil, starts to “bleed” out of the rock, like condensation on a cold glass of water on a hot day.
Then all of the other extremes of tar sands and other oil shale facilities are needed– the plant and upgraders, transport to a refinery that can handle the product (if no such place exists in Mongolia now or in the future, then the kerogen pre-crude product must be exported– so any talk of reducing imports is a farce). However, the Genie facility– with unproven technology, let us repeat– would operate only 60km’s or so from UB. With that being the case, one wonders if Genie has come to Mongolia as a round about way to demonstrate the viability of their Israeli project, which in turn could help their hand in opening up the largest single oil deposit in the world?
The Green River Formation is the most well known of the oil shale basins in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. Conservative estimates are that if it were given the go-ahead for development then that would be a deposit with over 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Almost five times that of Canada’s tar sands. And at a higher environmental and climate cost as well.
When one considers who is leading the company it seems highly probable that Genie’s very existence is ideological, given the public positions of many on the board regarding oil, climate change, Zionism and militarism, never mind American revelationist Christianity tied to tales of Armageddon and Israel.
Mongolia is clearly under the domination of resource extraction on a level few countries have ever suffered through. Even with all the money flowing in, the bottom half of the country sees only the rise in prices with a rising currency, and have a harder time with the land and securing basic goods than ever.
So is Genie trying to use Mongolia as a laboratory for the worst form of the worst form of extreme oil extraction left on the planet? Would that be to hand off the shaleball to Genie in Israel, to destroy the climate while trying to make a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement irrelevant? If Israel commercially can produce their estimated over 200 billion barrels of oil shale, that would be economically the single greatest apartheid wall for the BDS movement to scale. And even then, God’s work is not done. At this point it is time to take this tech developed in Colorado in the first place, back home. Some of the driest parts of the American west, where water is already at threat from climate change that hasn’t been fed oil shale carbon on a large scale yet.
Macdonald Stainsby is an anti-tar sands and social justice activist, freelance writer and professional hitchhiker looking for a ride to the better world, currently based in Vancouver, Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org