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Oil-sands development raises questions for Utah

Published: Saturday, Feb. 28 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

The world's largest oil companies are building open-pit mines near Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada — an oil-rich region — to find oil sands.

Eamon Mac Mahon, AP

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Utah should be careful not to repeat mistakes made in Canada as the state maps out its energy future in oil sands, a Canadian analyst said Friday.

Simon Dyer, director of oil-sands solutions for the Pembina Institute — an Alberta, Canada-based nonprofit environmental group — said in an interview that Utah could learn some important lessons from oil-sands development in Canada, where people are struggling with some difficult environmental issues due to oil-sands development. Dyer was a speaker at the Western U.S. Oil Sands Conference, held Friday at the University of Utah.

"Canada is developing a reputation that oil sands haven't been developed sustainably," he said.

Canada didn't do the necessary planning to enable oil sands to proceed in a responsible fashion, he said. "Alberta and Canada didn't set environmental rules in place first of all, didn't complete its land-use planning, and now you're seeing a lot of opposition to oil-sands projects because of that."

Utah should perform adequate planning and detail all environmental rules up front, which would streamline the development process in the long run, Dyer said. The state also should continue to investigate oil-sands development and work to determine the potential long-range economic and environmental impacts, because "unconventional fuels" such as oil sands could be a viable source if it can be done responsibly. But he said that many "unconventionals" should be considered transitional fuel sources until new renewable energy sources can be developed.

John Baza, head of the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, also attended the conference and said in an interview that the state is interested in seeing limited oil-sands activity, to develop some of the technologies that are currently being pursued. "What we'd like to see is how some of these processes mature and if they do, in fact, result in improved environmental protection," he said.

If the processes do improve that protection, businesses would then have the opportunity to establish themselves, he said.

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, who spoke at the conference, said in an interview that many of his colleagues in Washington, D.C., are excited about the possibilities of unconventional fuel sources.

He said that Utah should support the development of all potential energy sources, including oil sands, by allowing the marketplace to decide. Environmental concerns should be considered, he said, but those issues should not be allowed to prohibit production, to the state's potential detriment.

"If we don't develop these various sources of energy and then discover that we badly need the energy, we'll be behind the curve and wish we had," he said.

E-mail: jlee@desnews.com

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