The nation’s first tar sands mining operation is ready to begin extracting oil from a 213-acre site in eastern Utah, where a small group of environmental activists has set up camp to protest a project they say will have negative impacts on the surrounding lands, and on overall air quality.
The environmentalists have a right to protest, and their positions on such projects deserve consideration. The fact of the matter is the U.S. Oil Sands development at PR Springs in the Uintah Basin has been thoroughly studied, tested and now properly permitted by regulatory authorities. The Utah Supreme Court last week rejected a petition by environmental groups challenging the project’s permitting process that began in 2008.
Opponents seem to advocate a de facto abandonment of any and all plans to develop fossil fuel resources — even those that leave less of an environmental impact — in favor of renewable energy.
Yet there continues to be a strong worldwide market demand for oil. In fact, the introduction of new technologies like fracking in North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas has in a few short years transformed America from an importer to an exporter of oil. The PR Springs operation is expected to yield 2,000 barrels of oil a day.
The project is suited to the kinds of tar sands found in eastern Utah. The company behind the development has demonstrated to the satisfaction of regulatory authorities that its process carries minimal environmental impacts. Opposition has been based largely on two concerns. The first has to do with the potential impact on area groundwater. The other concerns the macro-impact of carbon dioxide releases resulting from the aggregate development of tar and shale oil in the Uintah Basin.
Regulators and the mine operators say environmental impact assessments have taken those concerns into account. The competence of those assessments must be respected, at least until there is evidence that the state regulators overlooked or underestimated potential impacts.
The project will go forward and will contribute to an energy development boom in eastern Utah, which is having a significant impact on the local economy.
Environmental regulations regarding fossil fuel extraction may be a primary influence over those market forces in coming years. At this point in time, the regulatory and environmental protection functions of government have weighed in and approved the tar sands project to go forward.
Those encamped at the site to oppose operations are mounting a protest that is now only symbolic. Their concerns have been taken into account and given appropriate weight over nearly seven years in the permitting process. By court order, that process is officially complete, and the project should be permitted to go forward.