Critics of a proposal to mine tar sands for oil in the Book Cliffs told an audience this week that "the risk of contamination to 30 million people who depend on the Colorado is too great to justify the number of jobs that could be created" by the proposed operation.
Tim Wagner, a representative from the Sierra Club and John Weisheit, co-founder of the Moab-based Living Rivers, spoke to about 100 people at the Grand Center on Tuesday night about the possible dangers of the tar sands project. The proposed Utah mining operation is the first of its kind in the U.S. and the first in the world to use a citrus-based solvent to extract the oil from tar sands
U.S. Oil Sands, formerly Earth Energy Resources, a Canadian company, received the mining permit in 2010 from the Utah Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining (UDOGM). At the time, state officials found that the necessary protections were in place to allow the project to move forward. UDOGM officials also noted that the company had obtained the required permits from the state Division of Water Quality and clearance from the Environmental Protection Agency regarding air quality issues.
U.S. Oil Sands officials have repeatedly said the citrus-based solvent that will be used to extract the oil from the tar sands "leaves behind no toxic chemicals" and eliminates the need for retention ponds that could harm wildlife or other natural resources.
But Wagner said this week that he believes U.S. states lack applicable statutes to regulate tar sands mining and that the proposed use of the solvent in the Utah project is not proven to be safe.
"[Using the citrus solvent] is a new thing. It is the first place in the world where this is happening, and I don't believe the state knows how to handle it," Wagner said. "They are using existing laws in the books for oil and gas mining, but the fact is they don't really know what the effects will be with tar sand, which tells me we need a conservative approach."
Wagner and Weisheit said the mine could threaten groundwater and watersheds in the area, and could also negatively impact the land and environment. Weisheit warned that mining will cause a deforestation of the area and that disturbed soil "will get blown" into the Rocky Mountains and other areas of the Colorado Plateau and disrupt the snowpack. He also said the Book Cliffs area supports a wide variety of wildlife and recreation use, and the project would forever change the landscape of the area that may or may not be able to be reclaimed once mining is completed.
"It's allowing one resource to put all the others in jeopardy," said Weisheit. "Even if you don't believe in climate change, you can't deny there is a pollution problem, and the emissions from the process and the resource will only make it worse. They are not going to put the trees back, and their waste pile will sit there in an area we know gets a lot of precipitation, and the precipitation will leach through the pile taking the residual chemicals with it into the aquifers and stream beds, which lead straight into the rivers and into the homes of millions of people downstream."
Weisheit also said that Grand County "would regret" having the plant in this area because the tourist and recreation industries would be impeded due to the number of hotel rooms occupied by oil and gas workers, rather than tourists, and the loss of a pristine and popular recreation area atop the Book Cliffs.
Wagner called the project "short-sighted" with respect to finding a long-term solution to the country's energy needs.
"Every dollar and every year we invest in another dirty fuel, like tar sands, we are displacing a dollar and year from getting us where we need to be moving with renewable energy sources," Wagner said.
Living Rivers, represented by Western Resource Advocates, filed a challenge to the state mining permit and water rights arguing that the Colorado River is over-allocated and lacks sufficient water for the project. The mining project would require 100 gallons of water a minute to produce 200 barrels of bitumen (the compound extracted from the sand to develop into oil) per day, according to Weisheit.
The appeal also challenges U.S. Oil Sands' research on the long-term effects of the d-limonene citrus solvent. Representatives for U.S. Oil Sands insist that the solvent will evaporate, Weisheit and Wagner disagree.
"The solvent loosens the petrochemicals and mobilizes them" Wagner said. "Those will not evaporate, and the possibilities are endless for how far this stuff will go once it is set free into our water and atmosphere."
An administrative law judge appointed by the state will hear the appeal in May.
Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee attended Tuesday night's meeting and told the audience his community believes the tar sands mine can benefit both Grand and Uintah counties.
"We realize that across the board, the politics can be different in counties. In Uintah, we see the value of protecting our lands, but we also see the value in development. We believe both can be done in a respectful manner," McKee said. "I think there is a balancing act that can work with both sides."
Carbon County has some fairly large deposits of tar sands and could be affected by any kinds of decisions that are made concerning its mining and processing.