Tar Sands Production In America Is Closer Than You Think

Coming to a state near you?

By Tom Kenworthy

Before long the tar sands issue won’t be just about imports from Canada via pipeline.

Utah, which has never met a dirty fuel it didn’t love, has been encouraging efforts to develop a home-grown tar sands industry. Construction on a project located on state lands in the eastern part of the state could begin by the end of the year, according to a story in Environment and Energy Publishing’s Energy Wire:

“It’s not just something that’s up in Canada,” Utah Tar Sands Resistance member Raphael Cordray told E&E. “People don’t know it’s here in Utah. Our goal is to get the citizens of Utah to recognize that there’s a proposed tar sands site in Utah that could become the first commercial site in America, and what is at stake.”

Utah has about a third of the roughly 36 billion barrels of tar sands oil thought to be located in the U.S. Not all of that is estimated to be technically or commercially recoverable, however.  Tar sands contain a form of petroleum called bitumen that can be refined into gasoline. But the process is costly, energy-intensive, and on a life-cycle basis releases far more global warming pollutants than conventional oil refining operations.

U.S. Oil Sands, the Canadian based company that is working to develop the Utah deposits, has leases on about 32,000 acres of land in the state. The company was granted permits to begin production by the state in 2009. But it faces a legal challenge from an environmental group, Living Rivers, which fears tar sands production will harm Utah’s desert and mountain landscapes.

Meanwhile, supporters of another dirty fossil fuel, oil shale, have been making a political ruckus in a number of counties in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming — organized by a former Bush administration Interior Department official who now directs a Utah state office focused on energy development on federal lands in the state.

A number of county boards in the region have approved, or considered approving, a resolution taking the Obama administration to task for scaling back plans by the Bush administration to develop oil shale resources. Combined with efforts on Capitol Hill, this represents the beginning of an all-out election year push by Republicans to agitate for massive developments of dirty and impractical fossil fuels.

Oil shale – not to be confused with shale oil deposits like those in the Bakken field in North Dakota – is an energy developers’ pipe dream. Though oil shale deposits in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah may contain an estimated 1.5 trillion barrels of recoverable oil, it has never been proven to be commercially viable in the U.S.

Oil shale is a rock that contains kerogen and must be heated to very high temperatures to release a synthetic oil. It has “one-third the energy density of Cap’n Crunch!” Shale oil is conventional oil trapped in reservoirs found in shale rock formations.

Development of oil shale could have a significant impact on already stressed western water supplies, according to a 2010 study by the General Accounting Office. And a recent report by Western Resource Advocates shows that oil shale development would take huge amounts of energy, would have emit large amounts of global warming pollutants, and would increase air pollution problems in the interior West.

Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow with the Center for American Progress Action Fund

17 Responses to Tar Sands Production In America Is Closer Than You Think

  1. Leif says:

    Ah, the real reason the GOP is so intent to develop the pipeline. After all if we enhance the pipe line and Canadian Tar Sands, ours is done deal and the battle fought on foreign soil and limiting blood on their hands.

    Tar Sands are coming to the USA…
    Any chance for democracy to get a seat here?

  2. Mark Shapiro says:

    The best antidotes:

    1) Electrify transportation (examples – Better Place and Tesla)

    2) promote solar and wind development to power electrified vehicles (example: see McKinsey study on PV —

  3. Somebody said that we’ll run out of sink long before we run out of source. Seems true enough — it took the biosphere 3.5 billion years to deposit its excess carbon into the lithosphere, and even though we’re running out of the low-hanging fruit, Saudi oil and so on, there still far more hydrocarbon source sitting in the ground than we’ll ever be able to use.

    I say “ever” because we’ll pollute ourselves out of existence if we keep using the stuff. It seems as though we only have two hopes for staving off rampant AGW: 1) the energy returned on energy invested in obtaining these “unconventional” hydrocarbon products goes so negative that even government subsidies can’t make them profitable and, 2) the world economy/population crashes before we make the planet completely uninhabitable.

    Why these wealthy corporations don’t see themselves as being in the “energy business,” rather than in the “hydrocarbon business,” is beyond me. In the “energy business” they could spend their resources, and make plenty of money, developing renewables, instead of pursuing dead-end fuel sources.

  4. Sasparilla says:

    Ugh, I wonder what the break even price of oil has to be for this to be profitable – in this political environment it seems that’s pretty much all that matters. With the price of US oil hovering above $100 a barrel for a long time it makes profitable what would have been unprofitable in years past.

    I thought it couldn’t get worse than the Canadian Tar oil we’ve got coming through the 2 existing pipelines from Canada (Keystone 1 & Alberta Clipper), providing ~20% of US oil imports already and XL expansion which seems a done deal regardless of who wins in November – but here we are, right in Utah.

    Just wait long enough and the price of oil will get high enough to render any oil “resource” profitable it seems… We need to get off this merry go round.

  5. M Tucker says:

    “Our goal is to get the citizens of Utah to recognize that there’s a proposed tar sands site in Utah that could become the first commercial site in America, and what is at stake.”

    I wonder if the citizens of the deeply red state of Utah will see this as an assault on the environment or an opportunity for jobs and US energy independence. I wonder which side will have the most compelling message for the citizens of Utah.

  6. Mark Shapiro says:

    A climatehawks’s goal is to reduce demand for fossil fuels to zero.

    That will stop tar sands production – the most expensive -first.

    Tools: electric cars, bikes, shoes, public transport, gas taxes. You’ve read about all of the tools here.

    BTW, h/t to some CP reader from a couple days ago on the McKinsey study above projecting 400 – 600 GW PV by 2020. Wow!!

  7. Got some tar sands tickets for you on the train to runaway global warming. All aboard?

  8. otter17 says:

    We must be desperate for oil if we are going after a play that is costly, destructive, and less than 10 billion barrels.

  9. Sasparilla says:

    Its a really good question M Tucker. Sadly, I doubt climate change would even enter into the decision making process for much of the state’s very Republican population.

    As long as they can make money at current US oil price levels its probably a slam dunk…

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It’s a real Catch-22. As hydrocarbon prices rise, the foulest sources become economic, and the fossil fuel Mafia grow ever richer and powerful. As they have no consciences concerning destroying future generations, even their own descendants, the pollution goes on. If by some prodigy of Chance, one or other pollutocrat suddenly develops a conscience, they are easily disposed of and replaced by a new, and even more ideologically zealous, substitute. The whole business selects for unreflecting greed and arrogance.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Put your money on greed.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It’s the bosses who are hungry for profits who are driving this. Ten billion barrels equals well over a trillion dollars in today’s prices.

  13. Lou Grinzo says:

    The primary driver for such projects will be economics, no argument about it.

    But don’t totally overlook the fact that the political left is against tar sands production, which means the political right HAS to be against it. In fact, for them, that contrarianism is part of the allure of the technology.

  14. Paul Magnus says:

    We are about to go extinct, along with most other higher levels of life forms.

    Brain dead, boiling frogs.

    The only way we are even going to have a chance is if we have leaders who step forward on the global stage and pull everyone along on this crazy journey.

    I just cant believe what Obama is doing. I hope there is some covert strategy in there somewhere.

  15. Leif says:

    If I throw a paper cup out the car window, bingo, ~$100 fine. Corporations are now people, I call them “Corpro/People,” get to throw tons of toxins into the commons and pollute the air, water, dirt, oceans, even the tit milk my daughter-in-law feeds the grand kid! FOR PROFITS and even tax subsidies! GOP don’t fund abortion! How come my tax must fund the ecocide of Earth’s Life Support Systems? Stop profits from the pollution of the commons! Our inaction will make it damn hard for the Kidders…

  16. Robert In New Orleans says:

    The point that some of the posters here are missing is that Utah is an extremely arid state and the processing of tar sands and oil shale is very water intensive. I think the real race is between the fossil fuel companies and the other users of water in the state. Most of these fossil fuel deposits are located in eastern Utah within the Green River and Colorado River watersheds and that water is already spoken fore to the best of my knowledge. I suspect that because of climate change intensified drought, there simply will not be enough extra water for these fossil fuels to be exploited.

  17. JH says:

    My guess would be it’s because they would only make “plenty” of money in the earlier phases. Once the infrastructure is in place, the profits will drop off because, after all, they wouldn’t be able to jack energy prices up so high on a source that’s essentially unlimited. Anybody can access plans on the internet to build their own solar panels and windmills which soon pay for themselves in energy savings. Big oil surely knows that’s also a factor. Even if they still made what most of us would consider “a lot of money”, they’d whine that it somehow wasn’t enough, simply because it isn’t the obscene amount of profits they rake in now.