In our opinion: Oil sands controversy

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 30 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

FILE - This June 25, 2008 photo shows an aerial view just north of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, where the world's largest oil companies are building massive open pit mines to get at the oil sands. A Canadian company aims to mine roughly 62 acres on the Uinta basin to produce bitumen, a tar-like form of petroleum, from oil-soaked sands. For decades, other Utah operators have used oil sands as a poor-man's asphalt, and Canada has been wringing oil from the dirt for years, but nobody has yet tried to produce petroleum from U.S. soil on such a large scale.

Canadian Press, Eamon Mac Mahon, File) ** NO ARCHIVE **, Associated Press

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A large oil sands project planned for the Uinta Basin is progressing slowly through a gauntlet of legal and regulatory hurdles in a case that demonstrates how energy policy has become so deeply embedded with conflict, and how nearly any proposal to extract fossil fuels will be vigorously challenged, regardless of its merits.

U.S. Oil Sands, a Canadian firm, is proposing to build the nation's first oil sands mining operation on acreage leased from the Utah school trust lands administration on the border of Uintah and Grand counties. Environmentalist groups have battled the plan on a number of fronts, and have recently taken a challenge over the project's potential impact on area groundwater to the Utah Supreme Court.

The oil sands project, which developers say would produce 2,000 barrels of oil a day, has so far met all permitting requirements and has surmounted various legal challenges.

Those challenges by conservation groups can be viewed through two lenses. Through one, it is clear they offer a valuable and necessary set of checks and balances to ensure such developments are environmentally sound. But through a longer-view lens, we see hints of a crusade that approaches ideological extremism.

There are those in the environmentalist movement who seem to argue for the complete cessation of development of fossil fuel energy sources. They prefer reliance on renewable sources, like solar and wind power, which have long been referred to as "alternative" energy. But in the radical provinces of environmentalism, there is no room for alternatives.

Some advocate for the nation to be harshly weaned from coal and oil so the markets would cleave in favor of clean energy. It is a "starve the beast" approach, akin in its extremism to the tea party call to force the federal government into bankruptcy in order to tame the deficit.

It is inarguably in the nation's best interests to develop sources of clean energy. One may also argue that not enough is being done in the policy arena to promote growth of renewable energy. But there is no rational argument that we are ready or able to abandon our reliance, for better or worse, on fossil fuels. It is also beyond argument that Utah's geophysical nature happens to offer abundant sources of coal and oil deposits, much of it on acreage managed by the state for the expressed benefit of public schools.

The U.S. Oil Sands project will deliver in its initial phase a sizeable royalty to the school trust, between $1 million and $3 million.

That project's open mining pits would be the size of the average Wal-Mart parking lot, according to developers. Plans call for the restoration of mined areas, with replacement of topsoil and vegetation. As for groundwater concerns, state water managers have approved the project's plans based on evidence that tailings won't nearly approach the deep underground water table in the area.

Those and many other technical aspects of the plan have been analyzed by regulatory authorities, which have given the go-ahead. But conservation groups say they will continue their challenge on grounds that regulators have acted "arbitrarily."

But what seems truly arbitrary is the de facto nature of opposition to such projects by some conservation groups that appear ready to oppose all such developments simply out of principle.

Conservation groups are important stakeholders in the arena of energy development. It is their duty to serve as watchdogs over careful stewardship of the land. It is the duty of the state to put its land to best use, and to see to it that the environmental impacts are minimal and properly managed. At this point, there is no evidence the state has been remiss in that duty in the case of U.S. Oil Sands.

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