Tar sands industry comes to eastern Utah
Asphalt Ridge's distinctive name comes from the layer of black soil, or bitumen, visible for miles across the Ashley Valley in Uintah County.
These deposits are the target of Korea Technology Industry of America (KTIA) company's exploratory testing for oil extraction. Core samples of the strata suggest a potential 60 million barrels of oil are contained in the hydrocarbon-rich tar sands that make up the ridge line. That's a conservative estimate, says Soung Kim, KTIA chief operating officer. He projects commercial production by late 2009 at 3,000 barrels of oil a day.
The Korean company is also bringing a new technology to the area.
"We're testing a rapid-production technique that extracts and recovers oil in a process simply called soil washing," Kim says.
KTIA has developed a low-energy process that washes mined material in solvents, which separates bitumen oil from the sand. Three commodities are retrieved in the process: oil, sand and recyclable solvents. The residual sand is used in landscaping, and the solvents are used in additional extraction.
"No water is used to extract or process the bitumen oil," says Kim. "Not using water in the separation process is crucial. We are much different from the large tar sands mines in Canada, which rely on water to wash the sands."
Without water, Kim says that the KTIA process remains more environmentally friendly as there are no tailings ponds or areas of concentrated contaminants.
KTIA's commercial unit "mines, processes and creates a salable product at the Vernal test facility," says Kim. "Right now, we market the product in three ways: either as asphalt, crude oil or both."
Asphalt production is the heart of KTIA's potential commercialization.
This is important as KTIA's process is projected to be economically viable at $30 a barrel.
"The asphalt business is the most essential aspect of the company's operation," Kim says. "This is a typically local product and not one to be exported. And, you know how important road construction is around the Basin."
Oil extracted from tar sands on the ridge is heavy (an API of 12- API gravity is a measure of how heavy or light a petroleum liquid is compared to water) compared to conventional crude oil with an API of 30 or 40.
Because it lacks the viscosity of crude oil, tar sand bitumen oil does not flow and must be trucked out rather than piped. However, Kim says there is no difference in the quality of the resources as bitumen oil can be refined into gasoline or other fuels.
Kim estimates KTIA's mine will likely have an 18-year operating life, "which means we are looking to make a long-term commitment to the community. We want to be good neighbors."
The mine and recovery plant employ 15 people - 70 percent as plant operators and the other 30 percent in administration.
Field operations cover about 40 acres, with a projected footprint of 350 acres. KTIA actually owns 760 acres of mine property on Asphalt Ridge.
KTIA acquired the Wembco/Crown Asphalt Ridge mine in 2007 for $19 million in cash and has since invested $41 million in the tar-sand mine operation. Depending on the success of commercialization, Kim says that investment may double.
"We use a method of surface mining called backfilling, which resurfaces old areas with overburden," he says. "We re-vegetate as we go. We'd like to get input from local residents to see what they would like to see in reclaiming the landscape."
The communities view of the mine is partially obstructed by constructed berms. Kim says these were built to reduce the effect of fugitive dust and light pollution in the nearby neighborhood.
This same kind of process could be possible in the bookcliffs and other places in eastern Utah as well. At one time a mine existed above Sunnyside that extracted tar sands for asphalt; the old cable cars that hauled it down can still be seen hanging in the air on their cables in the canyon.
The system used by KTIA could possibly be used in these areas because it uses literally no water, a commodity that is in short supply in Carbon and Emery counties.
(Richard Shaw contributed to this article).