Tar Sands Production In America Is Closer Than You Think

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