By Leslie MacMillan, Esquire
As we mentioned yesterday, Neil Young said Monday that tar sands production in Canada’s boreal forests — and the controversial Keystone XL pipeline to transport the fuel across America’s heartland — threatens to pollute the earth, kill Native people and has already transformed the area into a wasteland that “looks like Hiroshima.”
While tar sands have become synonymous with Alberta, few know that the United States may soon see its own oil boom. Last March, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved more than 800,000 acres for tar sands and oil shale development over a vast stretch of land in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado known as the Green River Formation.
“With all eyes on Keystone, there’s an equally or even bigger GHG problem brewing right here on American soil — and on Obama’s watch,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Grand Canyon Trust, a nonprofit environmental group that has sued the federal government over the decision.
These lands may hold more recoverable oil than has been used so far in human history — 3 trillion barrels, according to a U.S. government report. They also contain two to seven times the oil — and potential green house gas emissions — as Alberta’s tar sands and could set off a “carbon bomb” that would hasten climate change, said McKinnon.
Vernal, Utah, a town perhaps best known to outsiders for its 40-foot tall pink dinosaur that greets travelers passing through, will be the epicenter of tar sands development. The U.S Department of Energy says there are nearly a billion barrels of oil contained at nearby Asphalt Ridge.
Here, mining projects are already set to go forward on state and private land. State permits in hand, Canada-based U.S. Oil Sands is set to launch America’s first commercial-scale tar sands mine next year.
Cameron Todd, CEO of U.S. Oil Sands, declared, “Ours will be the most environmentally responsible tar sands project ever put on the planet earth.” Bitumen, the sludgy hydrocarbon found in tar sands, must be separated from the rock using chemical solvents and water. Todd says his company will use very little water and a 98 percent biodegradable solvent derived from orange peels.
But environmentalists say such technology is speculative and unproven on American soil, and water is a concern in the arid West. Other major players in tar sands leasing in Utah include Red Leaf Resources, which was recently bought by Total, a big oil player from France, and Enefit, an Estonian company.
The BLM prepared an environmental analysis that passed its first public review period in July. Kent Hoffman, deputy state director for land and minerals for the Utah BLM acknowledged that it’s difficult to evaluate impacts such as emissions. “Greenhouse gasses are a nebulous issue to try to get a handle on,” he said, adding that that the BLM is not “required by the courts” to predict all the impacts, such as end use.
Hoffman said the agency is now reviewing comments and will issue a final analysis in the coming months that will open another public review period. He emphasized that once a parcel of land is leased, a second, site-specific, process-specific review is conducted. Until then, “it’s a speculative shot in the dark as to what the impacts are. To a certain extent, I can see why there’s some uncomfortableness.”
In the arid high country between Vernal and Moab, a ghostly tableau of pale rock formations littered with dinosaur fossils, conventional mining has long been the county’s mainstay. But recreation is also a burgeoning industry, and environmentalists warn that tar sands development — which often involves strip mining — will mar the red-rock country and send clouds of dust as far away as Utah’s big national parks.
Todd called such notions “absolutely ludicrous. You can’t see the mining area from Canyonlands or Arches. I challenge anyone to go to their window and tell me if you can see 50 miles away.”
But a letter dated 2008 from the Environmental Protection Agency to the BLM noted elevated levels of particulate matter and ozone recorded from monitoring stations as far away as Canyonlands, the largest roadless tract and one of the last few wilderness areas in the lower 48 states.
“We have problems with air quality in the Uintah Basin, there’s no question about that,” said Hoffman.
But mining brings money to state coffers and jobs in an area where the average non-mining wage is $26,000, according to statistics provided by the city of Moab. Thus Utah lawmakers are eager to capitalize on the oil boom. Already the state is literally paving the way for mining companies, including improving a highway that runs through one of last pieces of wilderness in the state at a cost of $85 million — most of it public funds. “It’s an amazing amount of money to spend to develop a fuel source whose energy density is about the same as a piece of horse dung,” says McKinnon.
Protests on the Seep Ridge Road have ramped up in recent weeks, with demonstrators duct-taping themselves to equipment and getting arrested.
Meanwhile, Todd says that Utah’s governor and “a long list of state and county officials are very supportive” of his tar sands project.
One of the names on his list is Ken Davey, an economic development specialist for the city of Moab. He estimated that only 10 to 15 percent of Moab residents strongly support tar sands development; another 15 percent oppose it. “Most are somewhere in the middle: we value the economic opportunities, but we don’t want to end up like Canada.”