Intelligent Energy

Tar sands oil debate thickens with proposed US mine

Posting in Energy

The sticky battle over tar sands oil heads south. Environmental groups and the Alberta-based Earth Energy Resources spar on whether to mine Utah's tar sand deposits.

While debate rages on TransCanada's proposed 1,900-mile pipeline carrying tar sands oil from Canada's boreal forest to refineries in Texas, another Canadian company also looks south—this time, for mining. Earth Energy Resources has leased state land in Utah in order to open the first tar sands mine of its kind on U.S. soil.

The company thinks it can recover more than 250 million barrels on its leased* 7,835 acres over the next 60 years or so. Within Utah's Book Cliffs (above), the 62-acre mine would fall on the border of Grand and Uintah counties. Along with being the country's first tar sands mine, the project would also be the company's first commercial try at producing fuel from bitumen.

Processing tar sands oil, a thick and sticky form of petroleum, typically requires a lot of water, something which western states don't have much to spare. Touting a "bio-based" citrus solution, an absence of tailing ponds and less water use in its operations, Earth Energy Resources says it can mine for bitumen without the environmental degradation their northern counterparts have a reputation for.

Environmental groups aren't waiting to see if such a scenario pans out.

Living Rivers and other groups, the Associated Press reports, have appealed to the Utah Division of Water Quality to stop the mine from going through. They are concerned it could mar the limestone landscape and that pollution from the mine might contaminate groundwater and find its way within the watersheds of the Green and Colorado rivers. They also see the mine as a gateway for other large-scale tar sands interests in the West.

In addition to land and water concerns, is the air. Tar sands oil itself ranks among the dirtier of fossil fuels. Separating the thick oil from sand and clay is energy-intensive, and greenhouse gas emissions for the extraction and refining processes run high. From well to tank, the EPA estimated last July (while reviewing the Keystone XL pipeline proposal) that tar sands oil releases 82 percent more greenhouse gases than conventional crude.

The AP quotes Richard Fineberg, a pipeline analyst with Ester, Alaska-based Research Associates:

If this project only produces 2,000 barrels of oil a day, it's irrelevant in terms of the 19 million barrels the U.S. consumes a day. It's not contributing anything to national security.

With the cost, energy and amount of water that is used, it does not seem economically feasible, whereas investment into conservation and alternative energy is renewable each year.

A hearing on the project is scheduled for the end of May.

Image: Flickr/Zeesstof by permission

Share this

Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure