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U.S. Oil Sands Inc. prepares to strip mine Utah’s Uinta Basin

John Deede | Shale Plays Media Google+

In eastern Utah’s Uinta Basin, an estimated 12-30 billion barrels of oil are laying just under the surface. The reserves have not yet been commercially developed, but the Canadian company U.S. Oil Sands has been cleared to begin strip mining bitumen on its 231-acre site in PR Spring.

Utah’s hydrocarbon reserves differ greatly than those in other shale formations. Rather than deep underground oil reserves, the area has vast amounts of oil sands and “oil shale” poking through the surface. Oil sands, also called tar sands, have been extracted for years in Alberta, but oil shale is a different story. Oil shale is a dark, soft rock permeated with hydrocarbons. The commercial viability of extracting oil shale has not yet been demonstrated.

The U.S. Oil Sands PR Spring project was approved after the Utah Division of Water Quality declared that there is no groundwater underneath the area. Because of the apparent lack of groundwater, the company was not required to obtain a water pollution permit nor conduct any water monitoring. Protesters from the activist group Utah Tar Sands Resistance, who have been camping near the site for months, argue that PR Spring does have groundwater – they have been collecting and drinking water from a natural spring on site. The group has been holding a “protest vigil” near the remote site in hopes of preventing the development. They say that oil sands extraction will destroy the ecosystem, pollute the air and water, and exacerbate water supplies that are already stressed.

U.S. Oil Sands recently won a Utah Supreme Court battle against Living Rivers and Western Resource Advocates, activist groups which are opposed to oil sands mining. The groups challenged the Utah Division of Water Quality’s issuance of a groundwater discharge permit to U.S. Oil Sands. The court threw out the case because the permits can only be appealed within 30 days of approval. Living Rivers argued that there was no public notice of the permit and therefore appealing was impossible.

Unique processing method

Despite heavy opposition to oil sands/shale development, U.S. Oil Sands contends that it has a unique, proprietary process for extraction that uses a citrus-based, biodegradable solvent to process the bitumen. The process uses less mechanical energy, eliminates the need for tailings ponds, and considerably reduces the need for water. Only 1.5 barrels of water are used to extract a barrel of bitumen, an enormous difference compared to the three to seven barrels needed in similar projects. Opponents insist that the project will still waste too much water – approximately 116 gallons per minute, contrantly.

U.S. Oil Sands says that it recycles 95% of the water used in the extraction process. The company expects to recover 96 percent of the extracted bitumen and also recycle 98 percent of the solvent. Although the process is relatively efficient, opponents of the project say that it is anything but eco-friendly. They say that the non-toxic solvent will unlock harmful toxins and pollutants in the bitumen that would otherwise remain underground.

The PR Spring project is expected to complete the $60 million mine and processing plant in the second half of 2015. The 213-acre site will produce 2,000 barrels of oil per day. The company plans to expand production to 20,000 barrels per day if the operation is successful. Over 32,000 acres of state land is currently being leased by U.S. Oil Sands. If the project is deemed economically feasible it may completely discredit any estimates that claim the world is near the end of its limited supply of oil.

Related: The Utah tar sands time bomb

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