Digging a Deeper Hole

tar sands © Richard Anderson, Utah Botanical Center

Canada’s controversial tar sands were cast into the U.S. domestic spotlight earlier this year over a proposed pipeline that would carry up to 700,000 additional barrels of tar sands oil into the U.S. per day. But as environmental groups, the State Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency debate whether or not to expand oil imports from Canada, a different battle over tar sands is taking place 2,000 miles west of the nation’s capital. In Utah, the first American tar sands mine is set to begin operations by early 2012 unless environmental groups can mount a successful challenge.

Utah is home to some of the largest swaths of tar sands deposits in the U.S. According to the Bureau of Land Management, an estimated 12-19 billion barrels of oil lay buried beneath largely wild, scenic lands in the form of bitumen—a heavy, viscous form of petroleum that can be extracted from the mixture of sand, clay and tar sands and then refined into higher-grade fuel. Though these deposits have been discovered and explored for the better part of the 20th century, the consolidated nature of Utah’s tar sands have made getting at the oil too difficult to be profitable. Until now.

Earth Energy Resources, a Canadian oil mining company, says that it has the technology to safely and efficiently extract oil from Utah’s tar sands, and that new extraction technology, combined with high oil prices and a political atmosphere keen on energy self-sufficiency, has made mining Utah’s tar sands deposits for oil economically viable.

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So, in 2009, Earth Energy—which was renamed U.S. Oil Sands Inc. this past spring (oil sands being another term for tar sands)—received a permit to begin commercial development of a 213-acre tar sands mine in the Uintah Basin from Utah’s Division of Oil, Gas and Mining. Test pits were dug and full mining operations were set to begin by the first quarter of 2012, until two local environmental groups, Living Rivers (livingrivers.org) and Western Resource Advocates , filed a suit to stop development.


John Weisheit, a Colorado River guide and founder of Living Rivers, says that his organization is primarily concerned with the way tar sands mining will deplete Utah’s limited water resources, because the Uintah Basin is intimately connected to the Green River watershed which in turn feeds the Colorado River. “These kinds of activities not only use a lot of water but have the potential to take water quality away,” Weisheit says. “And this is the only watershed that seven states have. We don’t have an alternative.”

Living Rivers’ concerns are largely based on the Canadian tar sands experience. The most common extraction process for distilling bitumen from the sands, which is used throughout Canada’s vast Athabasca reserves, is extremely water-intensive. It takes two to five barrels of water for every one barrel of oil to be distilled. And that’s only one of the factors that makes tar sands mining so environmentally destructive, according to green advocates. Every barrel of oil produced from the Athabasca sands generates three times more greenhouse gas emissions than its equivalent in conventional oil production. Large amounts of natural gas are required to fuel the refining process, too, which essentially means using one non-renewable energy resource to produce another. Other water-related issues come from the post-processing phase. After the sands are blasted with water during the bitumen extraction process, the refuse mixture of water, sand, clay and excess bitumen is left to stratify in large “tailings ponds.” Environmentalists have raised serious concerns over the leeching potential of such sites since various chemicals used in the extraction process to help separate the bitumen are also present in the waste-and-water mix.


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Cameron Todd, CEO of Earth Energy Resources, says that their Utah mine will not be a typical Canadian-style tar sands operation, even if Earth Energy is a Canadian company. He says they’ve developed a “unique extraction process” that will substantially cut down their mine’s environmental footprint. “We use a renewable bio-solvent, which has been around for many years. The active ingredient is called D-limonene,” he says. “If you look for recommended biodegradable solvents [online] you’ll find that it’s the recommended cleaner for environmental performance in de-greasing.” And it’s true, even E has written about the merits of the versatile D-limonene—though as a biodegradable insect repellant, not a drilling solution.

Using this citrus-based de-greasing agent will allow the oil extraction process in Earth Energy’s Utah tar sands mine to be much more environmentally friendly than its Canadian counterpart, Todd says, especially on the water-use front. “This process that we have here has the best performance of any oil sand operation in the world, and better than many traditional operations,” he says. “We recycle 95% of our water and we recycle 98% of the organic solvent that we use.” Earth Energy’s mining operation will also use two-thirds less energy and produce two-thirds less greenhouse gases than the type of oil sand extraction that’s standard practice in most of the Athabasca mines, according to the company’s calculations. What’s more, the solvent-based process means that there will be no need for tailings ponds like the ones seen across the border, Todd says.

But if this new method is so superior, it’s fair to ask: Why would a Canadian company bring it to a small U.S. operation, rather than plugging it to the larger Canadian tar sands market?

Jennifer Spinti, associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Utah and leading researcher on oil sands and shale at the Utah Heavy Oil Program, says that it all comes down to economics. “I’ve been up to the Athabasca, there’s water everywhere, so it’s a completely different set of issues there,” she says. “Solvents are expensive, and you have to put in a solvent-recovery system. So if you don’t need to do that—if you’ve got water around and don’t need to pay for an expensive solvent—you don’t.” In Utah, not only does the consolidated nature of the tar sands require the new, mostly solvent-based bitumen-extraction process, scarce water resources demand it, she adds.

While echoing Spinti’s assessment, Todd raised another issue: Most of the land in Athabasca is already leased, which makes Utah look all the more appealing. But Todd says he’s hopeful that some Canadian-based companies will “get on board” with Earth Energy’s extraction methods when they see how efficient the process really is. First, Earth Energy needs to prove that the process works, and that can’t happen until mining operations in Utah begin in full. Unfortunately for him, that sort of wait-and-see environmental argument is lost on Living Rivers and Western Resource Advocates.


Weisheit says that even if Earth Energy Resources could guarantee no depletion of local water resources through their mining operation and no toxic runoff—which he doesn’t think they can—the strip mine would still decimate the previously undisturbed landscape of the Uintah Basin. Though Earth Energy has promised to put fairly advanced reclamation procedures in place once mining begins, Weisheit is still concerned about potential impacts. In order to reclaim the land, “the first thing they do is scrape what topsoil is there, and then pile it up and store it to use after they’re done [mining] to reseed and re-vegetate the damage,” he explains. “But there’s hardly any topsoil there at all.” That fact makes it exceedingly difficult to rejuvenate the land after the mine is used up, he says.

But Paul Baker, minerals program manager at Utah’s Department of Oil, Gas and Mining (OGM), argues that the tar sands mine needs to meet the same requirements as any other mining project. Earth Energy would never have received a permit if the state didn’t think the company had covered their bases, he says. “We consider the project to meet the requirements of the Utah Mined Land Reclamation Act, and there are certain provisions in that for protecting surface and ground water and we believe it has met those standards,” Baker says.

Sidestepping the OGM for the time being, Living Rivers and Western Resource Advocates have gone to the Utah Division of Water Quality to appeal Earth Energy’s mining permit which they claim was not adequately consulted in the permit-granting process. Those groups, along with Earth Energy, are now awaiting the Division’s verdict before any full-scale mining—or further litigation—can proceed.


Spinti says that a major snag with Living Rivers’ argument is that Utah is mining country. There are hundreds of conventional strip mines littered throughout the state, and other unconventional resource exploration—like oil shale—is taking off, too. “This is how I see it, and I guess I’m sort of a pragmatic engineer: It’s a mine, and all mines have a footprint,” she says. The fact remains that any strip mine is inherently destructive.

As long as we remain hooked on our current consumption patterns, oil mines—both conventional and unconventional—will keep cropping up, Spinti says. “I’ve been out to where the Earth Energy site is, and I think it’s a lovely area,” she says. “So, do I have mixed feelings about it personally? Yes. But I also have to drive my car out to lovely areas like that.” It’s our demand for petroleum that’s driving what oil companies are doing, she says, and until we’re ready to drastically reduce those demands, oil companies will keep mining anything that’s profitable, from tar sands to oil shale to off-shore oil wells and more.

As for what happens to the fate of the first U.S. tar sands mine, only time—and the Utah state government—will tell.