Reports of the consequences of global climate change have become a daily occurrence. The levels of carbon-dioxide in our atmosphere are at historic highs and exceeding the predictions of the world’s top climatologists. Across the Southwest, water levels are decreasing as droughts continue and high temperature records are increasing. And yet, in Utah, the business of extracting and burning fossil fuels continues unabated as if none of these events have happened. Worst of all, new extraction technologies are driving a seemingly never-ending frenzy to extract even the dirtiest and most resource dependent forms of fossil fuels—tar sands and oil shale.
Abundant supplies of these dirty fuels and new largely unproven extraction technologies have fossil fuel developers chomping at the bit for an opportunity to wreak havoc on Utah’s pristine desert landscapes and habitats. The extraction of tar sands oil produces three times the number of heat-trapping carbon dioxide pollution as conventional oil while using huge amounts of our remaining water supplies in the process. Working under the false mantra of “energy dependence,” these industries are concerned only with the bottom line and unfortunately, Utah’s political leaders are only too happy to join in. Their plans are made even more egregious when considering the proximity to five national parks, an abundance of pristine wilderness and archeological sites and recreation areas that brings in billions of tourism dollars annually.
The proposed Utah tar sands 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.
On the oil shale front, the Bureau of Land Management recently released a long-awaited Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) on the leasing of millions of acres for the purpose of developing oil shale. After a thorough scientific review, the agency recommends a dramatic scaling back of federal lands available for leasing, and only for research and development -- not full-scale commercial leasing -- until the industry can demonstrate that oil shale is a viable energy source that won't have unintended consequences on a region that is defined by a lack of water.
BLM's new approach reduces the Bush-era plan to lease nearly 2 million acres down to 461,000 acres, split unevenly among three states. Utah will be allowed to lease 252,000 acres, Wyoming gets 174,000, and Colorado gets 35,000. Critics of the BLM’s decision say that such a reduced acreage is tragic for Utah. We believe, that given the failed history of oil shale development in conjunction with the impacts of climate change, that dedicating this amount of public land is more than enough. According to a statement released by the BLM:
“Because there are still many unanswered questions about the technology, water use, and impacts of potential commercial-scale oil shale development, we're proposing a prudent and orderly approach that could facilitate significant improvements to technology needed for commercial-scale activity," BLM director Bob Abbey said in a prepared statement. "If oil shale is to be viable on a commercial scale, we must take a common-sense approach that encourages research and development first.”
While any exploration and experimentation with oil shale is too much, the BLM’s decision imposes at least some degree of common sense. The fact remains that after a century of trying, no one has been able to demonstrate a viable process to extract usable oil from shale. A careful, prudent approach makes a great deal of sense. Any energy company seeking an oil shale lease must demonstrate the economical feasibility of their proprietary technology. As part of the research, companies must also disclose how these new extraction techniques will affect air quality, water use, water quality, and wildlife.
Within the Sierra Club, a priority initiative to protect Wild America from dirty energy development and to block the expansion of fossil fuel and uranium development on public lands and the outer continental shelf – including new oil and gas, oil shale or tar sands leasing or drilling, coal mining, and uranium mining; protect iconic places like the Arctic Refuge and Grand Canyon National Park, and precious forest lands across America threatened by energy development; and prevent the more than one hundred billion tons of climate disrupting carbon that could be released by development and use of these fossil fuels. Specifically we seek to prevent new leasing and development in all public lands and waters currently off limits and prevent the development of existing leases in areas with important environmental, cultural or historic resources.
Drilling levels in the U.S. are higher now than at any point since Reagan was in office. More than 40 percent of the public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are open for oil or gas drilling, or coal mining. The Intermountain West, especially Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, and states such as North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, are ground zero for the fight over dirty energy development -- oil and gas drilling, tar sands and oil shale.
Stopping the dirty energy rush was chosen as one of the first priority initiatives of the Sierra Club’s newly redesigned Our Wild America Campaign, not just because of the significance of the threat and conservation impact of success, but also because it offers opportunities to engage new constituencies, work with local businesses and outdoor retailers, ranchers and Native American tribes on an issue of compelling importance to them.
The scale of energy development that is being planned poses serious threats to land, water, air, public health, wildlife, cultural and historic resources, and the very quality of life in nearby communities. Facing these threats will draw together diverse constituencies and provide opportunities for the Sierra Club to form genuine alliances with these communities around shared values and common interests that have relevance to the needs and concerns of the people living there.
Images courtesy John Weisheit