With oil prices surpassing $100 per barrel, talk of extracting the black gold wherever it can be found in Utah and elsewhere is raising red flags for environmental groups.
The most recent complaint came this week from 26 conservation groups that accuse the Bush administration of rushing to develop oil shale and tar sands and endangering communities and 2 million acres of wild lands in three states, including Utah.
A letter Thursday to the Bureau of Land Management from 26 conservation groups including the Sierra Club, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and The Wilderness Society asserts that the public has yet to be informed of the social, economic and environmental impacts of commercial development of shale and sands.
"We need to focus our resources on supporting energy efficiency and renewable energy sources that are known to protect the environment and are economically sound," the groups wrote in their letter.
Even though any large-scale tar-sands and oil-shale development in Utah might be years away, the Utah-based Nine Mile Canyon Coalition already fears that oil projects in the proposed Argyle Canyon Special Tar Sands Areas would "leave vast areas of land sterile and ugly, use more water than is readily available in this arid region and would pollute both ground and surface water for many miles downstream."
The public comment period for the so-called Tar Sands/Oil Shale Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement was supposed to end Thursday, but the BLM announced that it will extend the period for another 30 days. This part of the process is being used to identify where leasing of government-owned land for sands and shale development might take place.
"I don't believe there's any way they can do it without total devastation," said Steve Tanner, chairman of Nine Mile Canyon's impact research committee.
Sand and shale development would involve drilling many holes and pumping hot water down them to release the trapped oil and then bringing the product back to the surface. Tanner said there isn't enough available water for that.
The development also could require removing mountain tops to reach the oil and would raise questions about where to store the leftover materials. "That's total destruction," he said.
Once a final environmental assessment is published, the Interior Secretary will meet with governors from Utah, Colorado and Wyoming to talk about whether there is sufficient interest and justification for moving forward with a leasing program, said Jim Kohler, chief of minerals for the BLM in Utah. He said rules would need to be established to govern leasing government land to drilling operations.
Kohler said predicting environmental impacts is premature. "Until you have a specific proposal in front of you," he said, "it's pretty hard to say what that development will look like."
Once a proposal to lease land for the development is brought forward, another public comment period will be held to consider details of the proposal.
In addition to the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition's early concerns over Argyle Canyon, the group stated this week that vast areas of Nine Mile Canyon are being proposed for tar-sands leases. A coalition statement depicted a worst-case scenario, in which part of the Nine Mile area would one day resemble Kennecott's Bingham Canyon copper-mine operations in the Salt Lake Valley.
Nine Mile Canyon is home to exposed panels of ancient Indian rock art. Watchdogs say the rock art is already at risk of being destroyed by heavy truck traffic associated with current and future proposed oil and gas development.
In the past, the financial returns have been too low and the costs too high to explore extracting oil from sands and shale. But the high price of oil these days has changed that.
A process known as "destructive distillation" is being used to get oil from sedimentary rock known as shale. Evidence of deposits has been found in parts of Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. The Interior Department has said that the Green River Formation a geological formation located in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming is estimated to contain over 2 trillion barrels of oil, more than the world's current known oil reserves.
Federal officials estimate another 11.8 million barrels of oil are in the Uinta Basin area, locked in oil sands or sandstone. Critics have the same concerns for getting the oil out of tar sands as with shale operations water usage and environmental impacts.
Existing BLM plans for six areas in Utah could be changed to accommodate oil-shale and tar-sands development. Changes will depend on what comes out of the environmental impact statement, which the 2005 Energy Police Act directs the Secretary of the Interior to complete before deciding how to handle a commercial leasing program of federal land that has been identified for shale and sands projects.
There's also uncertainty over the price of oil or advances with extraction technology associated with tar sands and oil shale."Whatever happens, it will be a very, very expensive capital-intensive process to get at the resources and address environmental concerns," Kohler said.