Climate

Utah Officials Give Canadian Company The Go-Ahead To Expand Tar Sands Mine

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

This July 13, 2015, photo, shows construction at the U.S. Oil Sands commercial tar sands operation, in the Book Cliffs, in eastern Utah. Utah state officials have given the go-ahead for the mine under construction the eastern flank of the state, but they will require the company to do water and air quality monitoring in a move environmentalists are calling a victory.

Utah officials have given a tar sands company the green light to continue constructing a tar sands mine in the eastern part of the state.

The Utah tar sands operation had already been approved for construction, but the company, U.S. Oil Sands, recently submitted another plan to expand the operation. The Utah Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining approved this new plan, but did so on the condition that the company come up with a plan to monitor air and water quality — an order environmentalists opposed to the mine are hailing as a victory.

“This is a big deal and it’s a step in the right direction,” Rob Dubuc, an attorney for Living Rivers, an organization that has protested the mine, told the AP. “To expect [the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining] to deny the permit is not realistic in this political environment. But at least they are doing the right thing by requiring the monitoring.”

Environmentalists in Utah have long opposed the mine, saying they are worried about the effects a tar sands operation will have on local air and water. In July of last year, 21 activists were arrested after they chained themselves to fences and equipment at the mine site. The group Tar Sands Resistance has been fighting the mine since 2012, organizing multiple protests and vigils near the mine site.

U.S. Oil Sands — which is based out of Calgary, Alberta — and the state of Utah have argued that there would be little risk to water contamination from the mine, since the operation doesn’t have any connection to a groundwater source. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has conducted studies that back up these claims.

But University of Utah Geology Professor Bill Johnson maintains that the mine would pose a pollution risk. Johnson said last month that a study he conducted on the vulnerability of water sources near the mine does point to a threat from the operation.

“Unfortunately, every decision that has been made to date is the (same) as looking out at the sky today and saying it is impossible that water can fall from the sky, and I find that infuriating,” he said at a hearing about the project last month. “The conclusions are based on data that was never intended to find a hydrological resource.”

This potential risk to water sources is why environmentalists in the state have praised officials’ decision to mandate that U.S. Oil Sands monitor air and water quality near the mine site. Dubuc told the AP that this monitoring will help prove whether or not worries about contamination were warranted. U.S. Oil Sands says it plans to comply with the monitoring mandate.

Tar sands mining is prevalent in Canada, but this Utah operation is among the first of its kind for the United States. According to U.S. Oil Sands, there are more than 50 tar sands deposits in Utah, which contain a total of 20 to 32 billion barrels of tar sands crude. And Utah might not be the last state to get into the tar sands mining business: in 2013, the governors of Mississippi and Alabama signed a Memorandum of Understanding that agreed to study tar sands resources in the states. The states haven’t done any actual tar sands development yet, but residents and environmentalists remain worried that they could one day start.

Tar sands, as a fuel, has long been criticized by environmentalists because mining it is particularly carbon-intensive. In Canada, creating tar sands mining operations means cutting down vast swaths of boreal forest. It’s been labeled as one of the dirtiest types of liquid fuel, with an extraction process that’s water-intensive and creates toxic holding ponds that kill birds that land on them. U.S. Oil Sands, however, maintains that its extraction process for tar sands in Utah is less environmentally damaging than the processes used in Canada. It involves a use of a citrus solvent — rather than a hydrocarbon solvent, as is used in most tar sands operations — to reduce the tar sands’ viscosity.

Still, extraction isn’t the only thing aspect of tar sands that poses a risk to the environment. Transporting tar sands around the U.S. and Canada is also risky — in 2010, for instance, a tar sands pipeline owned by Canadian oil company Enbridge spilled more than 800,000 gallons of tar sands crude into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, a disaster that stands as the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. This risk of a major spill is one of the main reasons so many environmental activists are opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline, which would ship tar sands crude from Alberta to Texas.

UPDATE JUL 22, 2015 1:23 PM

A previous version of this story called the U.S. Oil Sands mine the first of its kind in the U.S. In fact, Utah already has a tar sands mine, operated by MCW Energy Group, that went into operation in October 2014. ThinkProgress regrets the error.

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