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The Utah tar sands time bomb

By John Deede, Shale Plays Media

While the debate over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline stretching from Alberta’s tar sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast has dominated environmental news, few people are aware that Utah has its own tar sand formation. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that the recoverable oil in the Green River Formation located in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah is up to 3 trillion barrels – about three times more than all of the oil that has been used in human history. The formation in Utah’s Uintah Basin is estimated to contain between 353 billion to 1.15 trillion barrels of oil, or two to seven times more than the 170 billion barrels known to be located in the Canadian tar sands.

In October, Utah issued a permit to U.S. Oil Sands, which happens to be a Canadian Company, to extract 2,000 barrels of oil per day from 213 of the 32,000 acres leased in Utah’s Uintah Basin. This follows the Obama administration’s decision to set aside 800,000 acres of state and local lands for oil development. Although every action being made to extract the oil is being challenged in court, foreign and domestic oil companies are moving in to get their foot in the door in Utah.

Tar sands, also called oil sands, have traditionally been passed over for development due to the difficult nature of the extraction process. The sands first have to be taken out of the ground. The process in Utah would resemble strip mining, where the material is taken directly from the surface. Then, the material has to be crushed into finer particles. Hot water is added to the crushed mix, allowing the heavy bitumen to separate from the sand. The separation process needs vigorous mechanical mixing along the process of hydro-transport lines. The coarse solids sink to the bottom of the mix, which are removed and are used as dam construction material for ‘tailings ponds,’ which are man-made reservoirs where waste from the process is dumped. Solid waste, residual water, chemicals used in the process, and unrecovered bitumen are all sent to these ponds, which are then left open to the environment. After the solids are taken from the bottom of the mix, bubbles are pumped into the sludgy substance, and the bitumen droplets attach to air bubbles and become ‘bitumen froth,’ which floats to the top. After the mix is deaerated, it needs to be diluted before it is ready for pipeline transmission. A hydrocarbon solvent is added to reduce density and viscosity. The bitumen is then skimmed off the top and processed further to make it suitable for sending through pipelines and refineries.

The process of extracting tar sands is known to produce approximately three times as much carbon dioxide as conventional oil and uses large amounts of water in the process. This need for water is concerning for the approximately 40 million Americans who currently depend on the Colorado River and its tributaries for drinking water. Tar sands proponents argue that they would be drawing water from 2,000 feet or further below the surface, which they claim has no other use in the region. Current U.S. clean water policy is that water at this depth will never be used and can therefore be intentionally polluted. Although the companies are toting their new-and-improved solvent based on orange peels, this gives little comfort to those concerned with the long-term environmental effects. They argue that the solvent, while benign on its own, could unleash chemicals trapped naturally in the sands and make the resulting compounds toxic.

While the development of Utah’s tar sands today sounds far-fetched, roads are literally being paved with public funds to provide better access to the area. The shale industry has lobbied the Utah state legislature to allocate funds for the $80 million road that has been plowed through the Book Cliffs. While environmental groups have filed lawsuits at every stage of the development process, oil developers are traditionally given the benefit of the doubt. If the industry is allowed to move forward with commercial production, there will be a significant impact on the air and water quality, harmful effects on humans and wildlife, and a damper on Utah’s tourism industry, which is a significant part of the economy there. Americans have loudly voiced their opposition to the Alberta tar sands development, and when they learn of the plans for extraction in Utah, the voices of protest are sure to be deafening.

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