Utah Approves Controversial Tar Sands Oil Project

By: Nick Engelfried 

September 15, 2010

On Monday, environmental groups in Utah criticized the state’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining (DOGM) for granting approval to a tar sands oil extraction project proposed by Earth Energy Resources, Inc.  Tar sands oil, sometimes known as bitumen, is a particularly difficult type of oil deposit to render usable, because large amounts of water and energy are required to separate it from the sand and gravel in which it is embedded. If it goes forward, Earth Energy Resources’ tar sands project will be the first of its kind in the United States.

Currently the center of tars sands oil production is Canada, where major oil companies have spent the last several years mining tar sands deposits in the province of Alberta.  The Canadian tar sands quickly became one of the largest industrial projects in the world, and Canada’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.  The main market for Canadian tar sands oil is the United States, where the oil is eventually converted to gasoline and used to power cars and other vehicles. 

Because of the extra energy needed to extract tar sands oil, the lifecycle carbon footprint of oil from tar sands deposits is rated at about three times that of conventional gasoline.  Though oil companies assert the tar sands represent a lucrative new source of oil in North America, environmental organizations like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Rainforest Action Network warn that development of the tar sands may delay the transition to clean energy by prolonging the dependence of the US and Canada on a particularly dirty form of fossil fuel energy.

Though Earth Energy Resources was granted DOGM approval for its tar sands project in Utah on Monday, the company still must receive permission from Utah’s Grand County before it can begin extracting oil.  It also needs to raise $35 million from investors in order to move forward.  Environmental and social justice groups in Utah have vowed to continue fighting the project, saying tar sands extraction would pollute Utah’s water and destroy natural landscapes while providing little of benefit to the state.  

In Canada, similar projects have already polluted waterways with toxic chemicals like arsenic, cyanide, mercury, and lead.  Every gallon of tar sands oil consumes between two and four gallons of water during the extraction process—an issue of serious concern in Utah’s arid climate.  For these reasons, as well as tar sands oil’s hefty contribution to global warming, Earth Energy Resources is likely to run into fierce opposition as it struggles to obtain the last permits it needs to begin extraction at its Utah site. 

Photo credit: Frank Kovalchek

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