A tar-sands project is in the works in Utah

A large-scale commercial tar-sands surface-mining operation north of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, with a processing plant in the background. Image courtesy of Suncor Energy, Inc.

A large-scale commercial tar-sands surface-mining operation north of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, with a processing plant in the background. Image courtesy of Suncor Energy, Inc.

Environmental activists say a tar-sands project planned for Utah – the first such project in the United States – could have disastrous implications for the Four Corners region and beyond if it goes forward.

But U.S. Oil Sands, the Canadian company that has recently secured a state permit for the operation, says it will exemplify “a breakthrough” in environmentally sound mining protocols, and inject millions of dollars into the regional economy.

There are no tar-sands formations in Southwest Colorado, although another new oil source, oil shale, is being eyed in the state’s northern reaches. The tar-sands project across the border, called PR Spring, is planned for the Green River Valley, and could be up and running by next year.

Tar-sands extraction – the industry prefers the term “oil sands” – involves strip mines. Such projects are most often opposed because of physical damage to the land as well as risks of water overuse and contamination.

The Moab-based watchdog group Living Rivers has lost several administrative battles to keep the project at bay, but they’re planning to keep fighting in the state court system. John Weisheit, the group’s conservation director, says if allowed to proceed, tar-sands mining in the Green River Valley could have disastrous consequences for the whole Colorado River Basin.

“This is the most insidious, insane thing I have ever seen in my entire life,” he said.

Green light from the state

U.S. Oil Sands holds bitumen leases on 32,005 acres of land in Utah’s Uinta Basin; PR Spring will be the first development. Mining is slated to begin in 2013, with expansion over the next five years to bring production up to 20,000 barrels of oil a day – about 0.1 percent of the country’s enormous daily demand.

The state of Utah first approved a groundwater discharge permit in 2008, and in 2009 gave the green light for a large tarsands mine permit. In 2011, Living Waters challenged the original permit as well as a proposed modification, citing groundwater concerns.

But in a May hearing, Utah Administrative Law Judge Sandra K. Allen ruled in favor of U.S. Oil Sands. Among other findings, the judge noted that the waste sand left over after extraction is expected to be fairly harmless – although she left it to the company’s monitoring to confirm that – and that hy drology reports show no shallow groundwater in the area; the water table lies between 1,500 and 2,000 feet below the surface.

Following a lengthy presentation of evidence to support both claims, the judge concluded, “Living Rivers has not proven that it is entitled to the relief requested.” The state’s Water Quality Board validated Allen’s ruling when it affirmed the U.S. Oil Sands permit in October.

“The decision highlights the outstanding environmental attributes of U.S. Oil Sands extraction process which uses only a nontoxic bio-solvent derived from citrus to remove oil from the sands,” said Cameron Todd, CEO of U.S. Oil Sands, in a press release. “Our process uses no tailings ponds and recycles 95 percent of its water … and the decision ultimately illustrates the merits that our responsible approach to oil sands development has for the environment and local communities.”

Todd added during a recent phone interview that about 100 people will be employed during the initial construction phase leading to a 2,000-barrel-a-day extraction volume. Another 100 jobs will be created during the operations phase, including some of the contract people working for service companies.

“We also believe that as we expand, potentially to 10 times the amount, that we would employ roughly 10 times that number,” he added. “Another way of looking at it is we’re planning to invest approximately $30 million over the course of the next year and that all goes into purchasing goods and services from the region.”

In addition, operation will yield about $2 million a year in royalties for the state of Utah, plus taxes. And the company’s shareholders ought to see a boost, as well, Todd said: “If you assume $60 a barrel and you’re going to make 700,000 barrels in a year, that’s revenue of $40 million a year.”

Watershed at risk?

Todd says the PR Spring operation is designed to be “far more energy-efficient than any project that’s ever been built to date in the oil sands,” representing reduced energy consumption, reduced greenhouse-gas emissions and significantly reduced water use compared to past mining operations. He points out that U.S. Oil Sands’ proprietary extraction process negates the need for tailings ponds; relatively clean, damp waste sands are simply replaced on site.

“The process uses a natural biosolvent from citrus to extract the oil,” he said. “As a result you don’t need much water and you get clean separation. We recycle the water 30 minutes after we put it in the front end. The water is still warm, which translates into reduced energy usage. We recover 99 percent of the chemicals, and the 1 percent we don’t recover degrades quickly on exposure to air and sunlight.”

A U.S. Geological Survey map shows the location of tar sands in Utah.

A U.S. Geological Survey map shows the location of tar sands in Utah.

The company will use deep wells to tap the aquifer underneath its mines; consumption will equal about a barrel and a half of groundwater for every barrel of oil produced.

Still, Weisheit maintains that the PR Springs mining will be environmentally harmful, and he’s committed to fighting the project in Utah’s courts.“The Colorado River watershed is the only watershed we have,” he said.

“The Colorado River doesn’t have any more to give. They’re going to level an aquifer system and turn it into rubble and waste sand. It won’t even have the ability to store water any more, and whatever water it has will be polluted with their chemicals.”

Weisheit also noted that because it’s at the top of the drainage, the PR Spring project also stands to impact the White and Green rivers. Furthermore, he said, the risks of tarsands extraction in the Uinta Basin extend beyond groundwater contamination. He believes the entire surrounding ecosystem would be endangered.

“We’re concerned because this particular locality is in a high-elevation place called the Tavaputs Plateau, and it’s one of the last wild places in Utah. It’s a huge refuge for elk and deer.”

And Weisheit isn’t convinced that the chemical processes involved in the mining will be as harmless as the company claims they will be.

“D-Limonene, one of the major components of EER’s solvents, has not been evaluated for genotoxicity, carcinogenicity, potential for endocrine disruption, or reproductive and developmental toxicity by any major health organization, including EPA, WHO, or the National Toxicology Program,” he wrote in a recent piece at onthecolorado. com.

Colorado oil next?

Fortunately or unfortunately, tar-sands formations don’t reach across the border into Colorado. Still, there’s plenty of fuel to be mined. Natural-gas extraction already has a strong presence in Colorado, most heavily to the north between Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs. A map published by the environmental group EarthJustice indicates natural-gas potential across most of the state, except for a skinny swath down the center and the extreme southeast corner. And a newer technology called oil shale has potential throughout the Green River Formation, which underlies a huge area of land under northeastern Utah, northwestern Colorado and southwestern Wyoming.

Estimates of the oil-shale resource in the Green River Formation range from 1.2 trillion to 1.8 trillion barrels of oil; the BLM reports that even a moderate estimate of 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil from the formation would be three times greater than the proven oil reserves of Saudi Arabia. The BLM also notes that the oil-shale industry has not developed because historically, the cost of oil derived from oil shale has been substantially higher than conventionally pumped oil. In turn, the lack of commercial viability of oil-shale-derived oil has inhibited the development of better technologies that could reduce its cost.

Weisheit says oil shale is destructive mainly because it requires “zillions of well pads. It’s kind of like strip-mining because there are so many well pads, and so many roads,” he said. Still, “nobody’s brought this stuff to market yet and the people who have tried it have all failed.”

But energy markets may influence that lackluster success rate, according to the BLM’s information related to its national tarsands and oil-shale policy: “More recently, prices for crude oil have again risen to levels that may make oil shale-based oil production commercially viable, and both governments and industry are interested in pursuing the development of oil shale as an alternative to conventional oil.”

Contact Anne Minard at anne.minard@gmail. com.

How it works

The low-hanging fruit of easy-access oil deposits is a thing of the past. Now, companies are looking to more complicated techniques to supply the world’s need for fuel. Here are several varieties likely to be more widely used in coming years:

Tar sands

Tar sands, or oil sands, are a combination of clay, sand, water, and bitumen, a heavy black viscous substance that can be refined into oil. Open-pit mining can be used to recover tar-sands deposits near the surface. Mining operations use large shovels to dig up tar sands and load them into huge trucks bound for a facility where the bitumen is isolated from its companion clay, sand, and water.

Because bitumen is so thick, it also requires dilution with lighter hydrocarbons to make it transportable by pipelines. When deposits are buried too deeply to be mined efficiently, they may be heated underground using steam or other methods and pumped out of the ground.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates U.S. tar-sands resources to contain 60 to 80 billion barrels of oil; roughly 11 billion barrels may be recoverable. The most promising deposits are in western California and eastern Utah.

Oil shale

Oil shale is any sedimentary rock that contains solid bituminous materials, called kerogen, that are released as petroleum-like liquids when the rock is heated, usually underground, prior to extraction. Oil shale was formed millions of years ago when silt and organic debris were deposited on lakebeds and sea bottoms. It is found in many places worldwide, but by far the largest deposits are in the Green River Formation where Colorado, Utah and Wyoming meet.

Estimates of the oil resource in the Green River Formation range from 1.2 trillion to 1.8 trillion barrels, but not all of those resources are recoverable. According to the Department of Interior, the estimated 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil from the Green River Formation could last for more than 400 years. So far, oil shale is seldom used because its technologies are cost-prohibitive.


This controversial technology is used to extract buried natural gas, rather than oil. Much of its notoriety stems from water-contamination problems that have dogged its initial use in the Marcellus Shale formation underneath about 90,000 square miles of Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia. Still, partly because of the dawn of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, natural gas is now cheaper than coal.

To initiate fracking, a well is drilled vertically to the desired depth – usually thousands of feet deeper than traditional natural-gas wells – and then turns 90 degrees and continues horizontally for several thousand feet into the shale layer. A mix of water, sand, and chemicals is pumped into the well at high pressure in order to create fissures in the shale through which the gas can escape. Natural gas escapes through the fissures and is drawn back up the well to the surface, where it is processed, refined, and shipped to market.

Problems arise partly because the process requires vast quantities of water, and because the so-called “fracking fluid” utilizes a toxic brew of chemicals that the industry often won’t even reveal. Studies of fracking waste suggest that the fluid contains formaldehyde, acetic acids, citric acids, boric acids and hundreds of other chemicals.

Usable fracking deposits aren’t confined to the Marcellus Shale. They’re being utilized in locations across Texas, and in a wide belt reaching from northern New Mexico across Colorado, Wyoming and southern Montana. According to the environmental group EarthJustice, fracking operations have been linked with explosions and water contamination near Rifle, in Huerfano County to the east, and in last summer’s explosion at the BP compression station in Durango.

Sources: BLM’s Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Oil Shale and Tar Sands resources in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming (ostseis.anl.gov), Penn State fracking site (exploreshale.org) and Clean Water Action (cleanwateraction.org).

From December 2012.